Thabo Mbeki was born on 18 June 1942, in Mbewuleni, a village in Transkei province. He was the eldest son of Govan and Epainette Mbeki. Both of his parents were part of a rural aristocracy dating back to British colonial times. They operated a small general store. During his early years, political discussions engulfed Mbeki's life. His mother, a teacher by training, became one of the first women members of the South African Communist Party (SACP). His father, also a teacher and SACP member, earned two university degrees and became a party activist. Highly literate by the age of 10, Mbeki read all the books in his home. From an early age, his parents instilled the values of self-reliance, empathy, and service.
As a result of his parents' activism, Mbeki was faced with the threat of disruptions in his life. He therefore spent most of his adolescent years away from home in boarding schools. At the age of 14, Mbeki joined the Youth League of the ANC. When his secondary education at Lovedale Institution was disrupted by a strike led by Mbeki himself in 1959, he was expelled from the school and continued his education at home. Early in the 1960s, Mbeki joined the SACP and studied under its brightest theoreticians. In 1962, one year before his father's arrest and subsequent life prison term, Mbeki left South Africa on ANC orders. He was elected secretary of the African Students' Association in London while completing a degree in economics at London University. In 1966, he completed a master's degree in economics from Sussex University and became an important fixture in the ANC's diplomatic efforts abroad. After receiving guerrilla training and lessons in Marxist ideology in 1970 at the Lenin International School (in the Soviet Union), he worked for the ANC in Nigeria, Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia, and Swaziland.
Mbeki met Zanele Dlamini, the director of the Women's Development Bank, during a stay in Swaziland to organize that country's ANC headquarters. They were married in 1974. Kwanda Mpahlwa, Mbeki's son from a previous relationship, remains missing after going into exile in 1980. Mbeki's home is in Ecingwana, Eastern Cape province. In May 2000, he received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. His hobbies include chess, reading, and spending time with his family. Unlike most political leaders, Mbeki writes his own speeches. His book, titled Africa: Your Time Has Come, outlines his belief in a coming African Renaissance.