By Political Bureau

There are striking similarities between the political careers of Baleka Mbete, the speaker of the national assembly, and Jacob Zuma, the man for whom she is almost certainly going to hold in trust the office of head of state.

At some point in their lives, the two were hit by massive scandals that threatened to sink their political careers. Zuma was investigated for involvement in criminal activity and faced the prospect of a lengthy trial, conviction and jail time. Zuma has, so far, survived.

In 1997, Mbete seemed ready to bid her political career farewell when it was revealed that she had acquired her driver's licence fraudulently. Mbete was one of the 44 people under investigation by Mpumalanga police for being in possession of a fraudulent driver's licence. The scandal led to the establishment of the Moldenhauer Commission, which found that her licence was fraudulent and that Steve Mabona, the then Mpumalanga MEC for safety and security, had abused state resources to provide special treatment for Mbete.

Mbete grew up in the ANC. After going into exile in 1976 and living for most of the time in Tanzania, she has, over the years established herself as a strong activist and leader. She is also an accomplished writer and poet. After the unbanning of the ANC, she returned home and played a role in the re-establishment of the ANC Women's League, an organisation in which she served as secretary-general.

She was born in Durban on September 24 1949 and trained as a teacher. She has five children: three sons and two daughters.

In 1994 she was elected to parliament and played a key role in the drafting of the constitution. In 1995 she was appointed chairperson of the ANC caucus in parliament. She became deputy speaker in 1996.

Mbete played a major role in the establishment of a new parliament that reflected the new democratic order. As a deputy to Frene Ginwala, she worked hard to change the image of parliament and to turn it into a people-friendly institution.

Mbete was promoted when Ginwala was redeployed by the ANC.

In her first days in office, Mbete raised eyebrows. Many questions were asked when she joined the group of ANC members that accompanied Tony Yengeni, the former ANC chief whip, to prison after he was convicted of misleading parliament on a discount he received from a bidder in the multibillion-rand arms deal.

She was also at the Pietermaritzburg High Court to listen to Judge Chris Nicholson hand down the judgment that has precipitated the end of President Thabo Mbeki's reign as head of state.

Mbete was in the headlines two years ago when she chartered a private plane to Liberia to attend the inauguration as president of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

The major difference between Zuma and Mbete is that, whereas Zuma has been charged twice, Mbete has never been prosecuted.

But for the next eight months, or even more, South Africans might have to get used to calling her Madame President.