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He's sharp, but he's no Mandela

Thabo Mbeki may have one of the toughest, most thankless jobs in the world.

He's Nelson Mandela's understudy.

And because the 78-year-old Mandela still enjoys almost godlike reverence in South Africa even after serving as its president the past two years, there's no way for Mbeki to look good when he takes over the job, as he almost certainly will someday. He'll always be compared to the incomparable Mandela, and he'll always come off second best, if that.

Mbeki (his full name is pronounced: TAH-bo em-BECK-ee) is in town this week to hash out a few diplomatic problems with the Clinton administration and to make a pitch for more American investment in his country. He has a decent shot at making progress in both areas if he can assure Washington on a few of its own concerns.

But before getting into the details on any of this, there's something important that has to be noted about Thabo Mbeki:

He's sharp, and by all accounts he's a gifted back-room political operator, but he's no Nelson Mandela. I've seen Mandela in action a few times and believe me, Mbeki isn't in the same league. Not even close.

It's not that Mbeki doesn't have what it takes to be South Africa's president. He has been active in the African National Congress his entire adult life and he's an acknowledged expert in economics, which he studied at universities in England. He also has had a distinguished diplomatic career, representing the ANC in Britain, the United States and several African nations.

On top of all that, he has family links with Mandela. Mbeki's father, Govan, spent 20 years with South Africa's most famous political prisoner in the country's infamous Robbin Island penitentiary.

No, Mbeki's problem has nothing to do with his academic credentials, personal character or political experience. His problem is charisma, or more precisely, a serious lack thereof.

The fact is, Mbeki, even when he gets cranked up, can put people to sleep. His monotone speaking style makes Bob Dole sound like Mr. Excitement. And that's when he's talking about exciting things like South Africa's bright multiracial future. When he gets into the tedious stuff such as tax incentives and infrastructure financing, look out.

This was especially on display Wednesday when Mbeki met over breakfast with a small group of journalists before going to the White House to see President Clinton. No one fell fast asleep, from what I could see, but there were more than a few heads bobbing suspiciously, despite the free-flowing coffee.

The hope is that these oratorical shortcomings won't hurt the 54-year-old Mbeki in South Africa as they would in these media-saturated and charisma-obsessed United States. And whatever his limits as a public speaker, Mbeki will always have the immense advantage of being Mandela's personally chosen heir-apparent.

Even so, his No. 2 status in the country hasn't stopped South Africa's freewheeling press from taking its swipes at Mbeki, something he still hasn't quite gotten used to. Maybe Clinton, an acknowledged master at charming the birds out of the trees and shedding press attacks, might give Mbeki some pointers on both subjects.

Such lightweight endeavors, however, aren't why Mbeki was in town. His real purpose was to sort out a potentially nasty dispute between Washington and Pretoria over something called Armscor.

Armscor _ short for Armaments Corp. of South Africa Ltd. _ was set up almost 20 years ago by the country's whites-only apartheid government. Its mission was to make sure South Africa was amply supplied with weapons and weapons technology despite the international embargo against the country in place at the time.

Among other things, Armscor managed to smuggle weapons parts and technology out of a factory in Pennsylvania and has been charged by the U.S. government with criminal wrongdoing. Despite repeated protests by Mandela's government that all this happened under a previous regime, our government has refused to drop the charges.

The usual speculation is that Washington is holding out on the Armscor case as a lever to get Mandela to drop his close ties to Fidel Castro of Cuba and Moammar Gadhafi of Libya. Both men stood by Mandela and his ANC during the decades when other governments were doing business, albeit on a limited scale, with its white apartheid rivals. Seeing this as a matter of honor and loyalty, Mandela has refused to bow to Washington on the issue.

The expectation in Washington was that even if Mbeki wasn't here to deliver a public change in South Africa's policy on Libya and Cuba, he might be proposing something less obvious, something that both sides might live with.

If that's indeed what Mbeki was here to accomplish, it may take a while to see any concrete results.

I wrote the other day about the central African nation of Burundi and the incipient civil war between its two main ethnic groups, the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis. Since then, there has been another development that makes an outbreak of bloodshed more imminent.

Burundi's new president, a Hutu named Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, had to take refuge in the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Bujumbura, after the mainly Tutsi army took over government installations. It was unclear whether an actual coup had taken place, but U.S. officials said Ntibantunganya feared for his life and might have to leave the country.

This is only the latest in a series of skirmishes between Hutus and Tutsis that have killed at least 150,000 over the past three years. The fear is that Burundi may go the way of neighboring Rwanda, where fighting between the two ethnic groups killed as many as 1-million in 1994.