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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Education in South Africa is still unequal. Tomorrow, a look at South Africa's schools, where many students show up sick or hungry. And as we've heard this week, racism, crime and poverty are still entrenched in that country. When Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first black president after centuries of white rule, he hoped to change all of that. And in 1999, Mandela's heir apparent, Thabo Mbeki, succeeded him.

Now Mbeki's term in office is coming to an end. We called Thabo Mbeki's biographer, Mark Gevisser, to discuss his accomplishments and failures. He joins us this morning from Johannesburg. Good morning.

Mr. MARK GEVISSER (Biographer, Thabo Mbeki): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Remind us of the impression that people in South Africa had of Thabo Mbeki when he came to be the president - let's see - nine years ago now.

Mr. GEVISSER: It was just over nine years ago. And it was very much the impression of the kind of kinder technocrat. The very first thing he said, in fact, when he won the 1999 election was we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

So we've had Mandela do the big-picture, vision thing, and now we have to get down to business and make transformation happen. One of the things Mbeki said very early on in his tenure was there can be no reconciliation without transformation. So we have to change the society and make it work. And I think one of the reasons why people have been so disappointed with him in the last few months is because there's key areas where it's evident that even on a technocratic scale, on a managerial scale, he has not managed to achieve what he set out to achieve.

There are many other areas, however, in South African society where his move towards efficient and coherent administration has been successful.

MONTAGNE: Well, I would think that this was quite a rough row to hoe. Could he have been successful or any more successful than he's been?

Mr. GEVISSER: I think that one of the problems with South Africa is because we were kind of typecast as the world's greatest fairy tale. We assumed that there had to be a happy ending. And we kind of forgot that we are this developing nation with huge inequalities, with huge problems in terms of the disparity between rich and poor and with this very difficult history.

MONTAGNE: When many people outside South Africa think of Thabo Mbeki, they think of his more controversial moments. For example, questioning the link between HIV and AIDS, or the fact that his quiet approach to the crisis in Zimbabwe seems like he's not doing anything or perhaps even supporting the president there. How much have these positions obscured his real accomplishments?

Mr. GEVISSER: One thing that's got to be said is that they have damaged his reputation hugely both at home and abroad. There's no question that particularly his position on HIV/AIDS has done much damage to his reputation at home as well. And the tragedy is that they have obscured more significant accomplishments in terms of working towards making the South African administration coherent, which, of course, has been entirely upended by his inability to call for public accountability in his own backyard, in Zimbabwe.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. GEVISSER: Great. Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Mark Gevisser is the author of "The Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Struggle to Fulfill the South African Dream." His book will be published in the U.S. next year.

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