Winnie Mandela resigns post in ANC amid new allegations

April 16, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Winnie Mandela announced her second separation yesterday.

Only two days after Nelson Mandela announced that his marriage to her was over, she resigned a major post in the African National Congress, which he leads.

It was a move that seemed to signal the end of a tempestuous political career in which she once embodied the anti-apartheid struggle for millions of people around the world.

It also came amid increased publicity about Mrs. Mandela's involvement in a 1988 kidnapping and assault, for which she was tried and convicted last year.

Mrs. Mandela was sentenced to six years in jail for kidnapping and being an accessory to assault. She is out on bail, and the case is expected to come up for appeal soon.

In the meantime, new allegations linking her to the murder of one of the victims and other crimes have been a headache and embarrassment for the ANC.

"It's like a Greek play," said Aggrey Klaaste, editor of the Sowetan, the largest black-circulation newspaper in the country. "It's like Shakespeare. The bigger the character, the bigger the flaw."

Mrs. Mandela did not admit to any flaws, however.

"The step that I am taking is not because of the false allegations being made against me but because of the devotion that I have for the ANC and my family," she insisted, her voice shaking with emotion.

"I have taken this step because I consider it to be in the best interest of the ANC, whose cause and policies I will support until the end of my life," she said as she quit as head of the ANC's department of social welfare.

The announcement by Mrs. Mandela at the ANC's downtown office was the latest in a long-running drama that began while her husband was still in prison for his political activities.

When he was released in February 1990 and began the difficult job of negotiating with the government on a new constitution, he came home to a flamboyant, strong-willed, beautiful wife with a reputation in the township of Soweto for terrorizing her own community.

A victim of white authorities who had harassed, imprisoned and banished her over the years, Mrs. Mandela eventually surrounded herself with a gang of young men who became known for the routine abuse of Soweto residents.

"Some of these kids left home and went to the Mandela house for refuge," said Mr. Klaaste, the Sowetan editor. "It started out as a noble thing, but she was not up to it."

"She never was the mother of the nation. She was portrayed that way by the foreign press," said Nomavenda Matiani, a former journalist who wrote the first stories chronicling the abuses of Mrs. Mandela's gang, known as the Mandela United Football Club.

"In Soweto, we knew the real Winnie," she said.

She said Mrs. Mandela attracted young thugs because she had money, which poured in from anti-apartheid groups around the world. The thugs acted in her name, assaulting, abducting and even killing people who ran afoul of them, according to Mrs. Matiani and others now openly criticizing Mrs. Mandela.

She also charged that Mrs. Mandela took part in the assaults, a charge that is corroborated by two of Mrs. Mandela's co-defendants in her assault and kidnapping trial.

During her husband's imprisonment, Mrs. Mandela became known for open defiance of the apartheid system and was popular among the radical township youth for her fiery speeches.

But she also came to be known for shocking statements not supported by other anti-apartheid leaders, such as her comment in defense of the practice of "necklacing" people suspected as government agents or collaborators.

A "necklace" is a tire filled with gasoline and set afire around a person's neck. It was a brutal form of township "justice" used mainly in the mid-1980s during township unrest.

"We have a just struggle. We didn't need to have it dragged in the mud," said Mrs. Matiani, who now works for an organization that promotes multiparty democracy. "Our struggle was not about killing our own people."

Over the past two weeks, the two co-defendants in Mrs. Mandela's trial have said that she took part in the assault of four young men who were abducted and brought to her Soweto home in late 1988.

One of the co-defendants, Mrs. Mandela's former driver, told reporters that she instructed him to dump the body of a teen-ager who died from the assault.

The driver, John Morgan, said he lied for Mrs. Mandela during the trial, saying she was out of town when the assault occurred.

He said that he was afraid to tell the truth and that Mrs. Mandela promised to look after him financially if he protected her.

Mrs. Mandela branded these latest accusations lies and said they are part of a "campaign of vilification" aimed at destroying her, her husband and the ANC.

"Over the years many have tried to divide and weaken the ANC," she said. "They have failed, and they will fail again."

Mrs. Mandela remains a member of the ANC's policy-making body, the national executive committee, but the post that she relinquished was her most prominent.

Mr. Mandela's announcement of their separation was accompanied by widespread speculation that the ANC would pressure his wife to resign from the social welfare post.

It was a controversial appointment in 1990, but Mrs. Mandela prevailed because of the power she wielded as wife of the ANC president.

That power exists no more.

"Almost certainly this spells the end of Winnie Mandela's career as a political figure," said David Welsh, a political analyst at the University of Cape Town.

"It's been building up for a long time. Even before Mr. Mandela came out of jail, there was a lot of opposition to Mrs. Mandela."

Mr. Welsh said the woman once labeled the "mother of the nation" had become an albatross around her husband's neck.

"He's now got rid of that albatross. Her many embarrassing statements and deeds no longer can damage him. That tie has effectively been severed."

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