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Our South Africa bureau chief Peter Hawthorne first met Thabo Mbeki in the Zambian capital of Lusaka back in the 1970s, when Mbeki was a roving ambassador in exile for the African National Congress and Hawthorne was a freelancer covering Africa for a variety of British and American publications, including Time. In those days, Nelson Mandela was still breaking rocks as prisoner No. 0221141011 on Robben Island, and South Africa was firmly in the grip of apartheid. “Back then,” Hawthorne recalls, “it was difficult to imagine a day when Mandela would be a free man and South Africa a multiracial democracy. And if anybody had suggested to myself or Mbeki that one day he would succeed Mandela as President of his country, I believe we would both have had a chuckle over a glass or two of the South African beer we journalists used to take to the homesick a.n.c. exiles.”

But then came the Mandela miracle, and Mbeki’s rapid rise to the top. Last year, he took over the presidency from Mandela, and last week he and Hawthorne met once again in Pretoria’s Union Buildings, formerly the seat of power of the architects of apartheid who had banned the a.n.c. and forced Mbeki and others to spend the better part of their adult lives outside their beloved country. “For Mbeki it has been a long and difficult journey from exile to the presidency,” says Hawthorne. “But in a way the hardest part has only just begun. Mandela is a hard act to follow, and there are tough times ahead. South Africa is still struggling to cope with the aftermath of apartheid and Mbeki is under intense pressure to deliver a better, more prosperous South Africa to his fellow countrymen. He is also being looked to by fellow Africans for solutions to the many problems that afflict the continent as a whole.”

A self-confessed workaholic who thinks nothing of studying through the night to master an issue, Mbeki is clearly relishing the challenge of being President, despite the glare of public office and the close press scrutiny that comes with the territory. He is warier than in the days when he worked in Mandela’s shadow as the Deputy President or as the a.n.c.’s spokesman in Lusaka all those years ago. But as Time discovered in an interview with him last week, Mbeki is not afraid to speak out on controversial issues. Not everybody likes what he says and he has drawn a lot of flak for his views on aids and hiv. But when Mbeki speaks you’ve got to listen. We did, and you can find the results in this week’s magazine and on our website,
, Editor, TIME Atlantic