A miasma of what might be described as ''low-intensity suspicion'' surrounds South Africa's deputy president and heir apparent, Thabo Mbeki.
There's no evidence of wrongdoing on Mr. Mbeki's part; instead, it's rather as if he was short of a spin doctor. But if the PR industry is failing South Africa's president-in-waiting, it must be said that he does seem to be an enigmatic character.Is he a father? One of the standard works of political biography says he is not. Another gives him two children.
He's the son of one of the country's best-known communists, but just about all that is known about his ideological stance is contained in the opening lines of a famous speech he made last year on the adoption of South Africa's new constitution: ''I am an African.''
Even his own father seems to find him something of a puzzle.
Govan Mbeki's famously austere intellect is undimmed by his 87 years, as is his gentle sense of humor. He is the third of the legendary trio - Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki - seen as the liberators of South Africa. Part of the high price paid for the life of a revolutionary is a degree of alienation from close family. But Govan Mbeki offers at least a few of the many gaps in the jigsaw puzzle which is the life of his son.
Thabo's paternal grandfather was a tribal headman, a convert to Christianity. Govan Mbeki was the youngest of five children by a second marriage. He himself had four children, of whom Thabo was the second oldest. Thabo's older sister runs a liquor store, one brother is in business in Johannesburg and the other brother is dead.
Govan's main recollection of Thabo's boyhood is that he was a voracious reader. Having attended a Presbyterian-Methodist primary school, Thabo went on to Lovedale College in Alice, the alma mater of most black intellectuals from the region.
The ANC's biography says that he completed his studies at home after ''his schooling at Lovedale was interrupted by a strike in 1959.'' Govan Mbeki says bluntly that he was expelled, but - with the fine disdain of one who has spent his life thumbing his nose at authority - confesses that he doesn't know the details other than that it was ''student politics.''
He is equally vague as to exactly when his son joined the ANC and the South African Communist Party, observing that the boy ''grew up in them.''
Thabo went on to study at a private college in Johannesburg. It was at about this time that he fathered a son, Monwabisi - his only child. The boy vanished mysteriously 21 years later. According to his mother, Nokwanda Mpahlwa, he set out for Durban in 1981 in search of other members of his family and was never seen again.
Thabo did well enough at college to win a place at Sussex University, in England, taking a master's degree in economics, with a thesis on the location of industry in Ghana and Nigeria.
He had vanished from London, and the South African security forces assumed he had gone home, underground. In fact he had gone to the Soviet Union for military training and a grounding in Marxism at the Lenin Institute.
Thabo Mbeki's relationship with the Communist Party is a confusing one. None of the official biographies acknowledge his membership of the SACP, but he is believed to have been a member - elected to the Politburo in 1979 and again in the mid-1980s - until his return to South Africa in 1990.
Govan Mbeki offers no more detail, but attributes his son's resignation from the party to ''pragmatism'' in anticipation that he would be assuming a leadership position in a democratic South Africa.
Certainly, pragmatism would seem to mark Thabo Mbeki's rise to the leadership of the ANC; first as political secretary to Oliver Tambo, then as head of the department of information of foreign affairs and finally as deputy president.
It could be credited with his early and seemingly whole-hearted involvement in the cloak-and-dagger meetings with agents of the apartheid regime which led to the constitutional settlement - meetings set in train by Mr. Mandela, but regarded with some initial suspicion from the likes of Govan Mbeki, who feared a ''sellout''.
If President Mandela is to be taken literally in his avowals that Thabo has been effectively running the country for some time, his pragmatism can even be credited with the ''realpolitik'' that has recently replaced the diplomacy of morality in South Africa's foreign policy.
In fact, the only departure from pragmatism which stands out where Thabo Mbeki is concerned is his vision of the ''African renaissance'' - an admirable vision of a weary continent rejuvenated by the miracle of the ''rainbow nation,'' which he expounds with near-religious fervor.
''Labels don't help us,'' reproaches Govan Mbeki. ''Thabo grew up in the ANC, and the policies of the ANC have been consistent, even before 1912, in regarding South Africa as one country and the people of South Africa as one people,'' he declares in the ringing tone of a party loyalist.
Pausing, he adds, ''He's a highly intelligent young man who I believe will not do anything stupid.''
It's the last word of comfort offered by the father of a man who would be president.