President Mbeki joined African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) while a student at the Lovedale Institute in 1956 and he was involved in underground activities in the Pretoria-Witwatersrand area after the ANC was banned in 1960. He was involved in mobilising the students and youth in support of the ANC call for a stay away in protest against the creation of a Republic in 1961.
He was elected Secretary of the African Students' Association in 1961 and he left South Africa together with other students on instructions of the ANC in 1962 and went to Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Tanganyika, now Tanzania and the United Kingdom (UK) to study. He continued with political activities as a university student in the UK, mobilising the international student community against apartheid.
Between 1967 and 1970; president Mbeki worked for the ANC office in London and during this period he underwent military training in the then Soviet Union.
He served as Assistant Secretary to the Revolutionary Council of the ANC in Lusaka in 1971 and later he was sent to Botswana in 1973 where he was among the first ANC leaders to have contact with exiled and visiting members of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM); and have discussions with the BCM which resulted in some of the leading members of this organisation joining the ranks of the ANC. The focus of his activities during this time was to consolidate the underground structures of the ANC and to mobilise the people inside South Africa.
President Mbeki engaged the Botswana Government in discussions to open an ANC office in that country. In 1974 he went to Swaziland as acting representative of the ANC. Part of his task was the internal mobilisation and the creation of underground structures. He became a member of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC in 1975 and in 1976 he was sent to Nigeria as a representative of the ANC. There, he played a major role in assisting students from South Africa to relocate in an unfamiliar environment.
He left Nigeria and returned to Lusaka in February 1978 and he was appointed Political Secretary in the Office of the President of the ANC and served as Director of the Department of Information and Publicity between 1984 and 1989. In 1985 he was re-elected to the National Executive Committee and served as Director of Information and as Secretary for Presidential Affairs.
He was a member of the ANC's Political and Military Council and in 1985 he was part of the delegation that met the South African business community led by the Chairman of Anglo American, Gavin Relly, at Mfuwe, in Zambia. He led a delegation of the ANC to Dakar, Senegal, for talks with a delegation from the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (IDASA) in 1987.
In 1989 he led the ANC delegation to secret talks with the South African Government which led to agreements about the unbanning of the ANC and the release of political prisoners. He was part of the delegation which engaged the National Party Government in talks about talks. He participated in the Groote Schuur and Pretoria deliberations, which resulted in the agreements which became known as the Groote Schuur and Pretoria Minutes in 1990.
He participated in all subsequent negotiations leading to the adoption of the interim Constitution for the new South Africa; and in 1993 he was elected Chairperson of the ANC. The election to this post meant succeeding the late former President and Chairperson of the ANC, Oliver R Tambo. He served as Chairperson of the African Union from 2002 to 2003 and was President of the ANC from 1997 until 2007.
President Mbeki was a member of the Steering Committee of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).