For most South Africans, Zanele Mbeki is an enigma. Having broken the mould on the role of the First Lady in SA politics, Mbeki has also redefined for future First Ladies a position in public life that is not intrinsically tied to the presidency.
While supportive of her husband, President Thabo Mbeki, and committed to her public duties, she has also managed to establish an independent life which has allowed her to carry on working in the field that has been a life-long passion - women's empowerment.
Deeply private and suspiciously wary of media attention, almost nothing is known about the First Lady before she married. Speaking at a briefing at the second Beijing Conference on women, she was emphatic that she is not defined by her husband's job description.
Born Zanele Dlamini, the daughter of a pastor, she grew up in Alexandra, 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 Wits University and in the 1960s she left SA for Zambia where she continued to work as a social worker.
Friends say that at some point 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).
She never completed this degree and by 1974 she had returned to England and in the same year married the future president of SA.
Friends at the wedding remember the occasion as a "small and classy affair" which was held at Farnham Castle. Essop Pahad, currently minister in the presidency, was the best man.
After their marriage, Zanele Mbeki worked briefly in the US for the UN high commissioner for refugees. She 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 Mbekis 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 microcredit was already an established method of empowerment in many developing countries and Mbeki was responsible for introducing SA to the concept.
In a speech in 2003 she spoke passionately about her work, saying SA had not embraced this approach, and that for all intents and purposes, micro-credit in this country meant "for-profit, consumer-orientated loans to salaried workers with bank accounts".
In the early 1990s, Mbeki used her position at the trust to mobilise women in SA to prepare for the now historic Beijing Women's Conference in 1994. According to the chair of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), Brigalia Bam - who is also a close friend - had Mbeki not taken the initiative SA's participation would not have been as strong as it eventually was.
Mbeki 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.
Most recently Mbeki initiated SA Women in Dialogue, which promotes dialogue for peace, equality and development .
Though fiercely independent and private, Zanele Mbeki always knew that her marriage to Thabo Mbeki was also a marriage to the struggle.