The president has admitted for the first time that he unconditionally offered Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi the deputy presidency in the run-up to last year's June 2 elections.
In an interview with the Daily News at his official residence at Mahlamba Ndlopfu, Pretoria, Thabo Mbeki revealed he met Buthelezi before the elections to discuss the IFP's continued participation in the African National Congress government.
He had unconditionally offered Buthelezi the deputy presidency of South Africa.
"We discussed whether he would stay in government after the 1999 elections and agreed he would.
"We did discuss the position he would occupy, including the deputy presidency. It was unconditional. There were no strings attached," said Mbeki.
However, once it was clear the ANC had failed again to win IFP-controlled KwaZulu-Natal, the ANC leadership in the province had approached Mbeki with the proposal that the KwaZulu-Natal premiership be exchanged for Buthelezi becoming deputy president.
It was then that Buthelezi approached Mbeki and said the situation was "unsustainable" because his own party would say he had sold them out for a high post, "which would be dishonourable".
Mbeki said that he and Buthelezi, who subsequently stayed on in his position as minister of home affairs, worked well together.
In fact, he had even made Buthelezi chairperson of two of the six cabinet committees, with others chaired by Mbeki and Deputy President Jacob Zuma. This had been done in recognition of Buthelezi's seniority as leader of a major poltical party.
Mbeki denied that personal conflict between himself and former environmental affairs and tourism minister Pallo Jordan had been responsible for Jordan leaving the Cabinet.
He said not only was there no conflict between them, but Jordan had also contributed to Mbeki's speeches on his recent trip to the United States.
The president also denied rumours that there was growing tension between himself and his predecessor, Nelson Mandela.
He said Mandela had been trying to arrange a meeting with him for some time, but unfortunately they had not been able to meet because of tight schedules.
It was then agreed that, instead of Mandela speaking personally with the president, "the rest of the government" would be used and Mandela would brief Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and her deputy, Aziz Pahad, on his peace-making efforts in Burundi.
Mbeki also strongly repudiated reports that he was "a control freak" who had taken over the appointment of departments' directors-general as well as ANC provincial premiers.
For the first time, he sent a strong message to Harare that South Africa would be against rigged elections in Zimbabwe.
But, he added that the lessons South Africa could learn from the Zimbabwean situation were that it did not pay to pretend "that the colonial and apartheid legacy to be addressed does not exist", and that transformation and racism could not be left to the ANC alone to deal with.
In the interview, Mbeki also:
- Expressed satisfaction with the functioning of his government in its first year in office
- Denied reports that the government planned to stop the supply of textbooks to schools
- Said that South Africa increasingly would play an even bigger role in African and world matters in the years ahead.
In his budget vote speech to parliament on Tuesday, Mbeki again emphasised that although significant progress had been made in dealing with the country's apartheid legacy, much work remained to be done before South Africa could be said to have made a decisive break with the past.