Zanele Mbeki was First Lady of South Africa (SA) from 1998 to 2008. She married former president Thabo Mbeki in 1974. She is involved in various national and international organisations promoting South African womens economic empowerment and is a founder and chairperson of the Women’s Development Bank Trust. She joined OMT in 1999.
While she was supportive of her husband as President, and was committed to her public duties, she managed to establish an independent life which allowed her to carry on working in the field that had been a life-long passion- women’s empowerment.
She grew up in Alexandra, Johannesburg, the birthplace of many of SA’s future political and gender activists. She was part of the second generation of black women to graduate with a BSc degree from Witwatersrand University and in the 1960s she left SA for Zambia where she continued to work as a social worker.
Zanele found her way to England where she completed her master’s at the University of London, before heading off to the US to begin a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). By 1974 she had returned to England and in the same year married the future president of SA.
Zanele worked briefly in the US for the United Nations (UN) high commissioner for refugees, and later joined her husband in Zambia, still working extensively with refugees in Africa and Asia, while continuing her work as a gender activist.
Soon after the Mbeki’s returned from exile in 1990, Zanele established the Women’s Development Bank Trust, at which she was first a director and is currently the chair. It was here that she established her credentials as a leading figure in developing a pro-poor microfinance sector for rural women in SA. Pro-poor micro-credit was already an established method of empowerment in many developing countries and she was responsible for introducing SA to the concept.
Zanele also serves as the chairman of the Trust Fund for SA Women’s Economic Empowerment and is a trustee or director of several national and international boards which promote social and economic development in poor communities.
She initiated SA Women in Dialogue, which promotes dialogue for peace, equality and development.