Winnie Mandela says fall from grace freed her from shackles of ideology Critics say she yearns to regain spotlight

January 25, 1993|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Winnie Mandela glided into the board room of her sparse new office, a statuesque figure all in black except for the gold and green fringes at the edge of her scarf.

The three colors are those of the African National Congress, the organization to which she pledged allegiance for more than 30 years but for which she has become a political headache in recent times.

The woman once dubbed the mother of the nation is on her own now, estranged from both the ANC and her famous husband, ANC President Nelson Mandela.

Having been virtually tossed out of positions she held in the powerful anti-apartheid organization, she has taken up two new causes -- helping poor people in squatter camps and challenging the direction of the ANC.

"This is what I've wanted to do all my life," she said in an interview in the office of her newly formed anti-poverty agency, about a half-mile from Shell House, the ANC's downtown headquarters where she used to head the department of social welfare.

"I'm so liberated here. I'm so free. I was trained to deal with humanity. Here I am dealing with human beings, whether they are Inkatha members, Pan Africanist Congress members or ANC members," she said, reciting the names of South Africa's three main black political groups.

"I have transcended ideological boundaries."

Some say Mrs. Mandela, always outspoken and never much of a team player, has become a loose cannon firing at the organization that had given her shelter and support through the dark days of apartheid.

They say she lacks discipline, a quality the ANC demands from all of its leaders and tries to instill even in its rank-and-file members.

The latest breach of discipline from the flamboyant, charismatic Mrs. Mandela began Jan. 7 at the funeral of Helen Joseph, a British born anti-apartheid activist who had been close to the Mandela family for decades.

Mrs. Mandela, again wearing the ANC's black, gold and green, stunned thousands of listeners by accusing the group's leaders of collaborating with "the oppressors" for their own political gain.

She turned her planned tribute to Mrs. Joseph into an all-out assault on ANC leaders for negotiating with the government of President F. W. de Klerk and, in her view, selling out the masses of disenfranchised blacks.

"In a struggle for liberation we need . . . a leadership which has the interests of our people at heart, not merely the satisfaction through the shortest route of the individual ambitions of a few men and women. History will judge very harshly those who betray the oppressed masses in this country," she said.

Her accusations came rushing out in a torrent that expressed the frustrations of poor blacks with the slow pace of progress in ending their suffering under apartheid. That kind of rhetoric goes down well among the angry, young radicals of the black townships, who form what is left of Mrs. Mandela's political power base.

Mrs. Mandela elaborated on her criticisms of the ANC leadership yesterday in a column that appeared in South African newspapers. The "quick-fix solutions sought by our leaders can only benefit a few and . . . will plunge the country into yet another vortex of mass violence and protest, this time not against the National Party but against the new government," she wrote.

Fall from grace

But her attack shocked and angered the stalwarts of the ANC, who less than a year ago had sat side by side with her in leadership meetings and formed the policies she was attacking.

"Winnie is just bitter," said one member of the ANC's executive committee. "All I know is that she was there in all those meetings and she never said a word against negotiations. She just wants to do all she can to hurt Nelson."

In April, the ANC president announced the breakup of the Mandela marriage, which had survived the 27 years he served as the country's most famous political prisoner.

The announcement followed Mrs. Mandela's conviction on charges of kidnapping and assault involving four young men who were taken from a church parsonage in Soweto in 1988 and beaten by her bodyguards. Two of her co-accused had testified that Mrs. Mandela was not present during the beatings but they publicly recanted their testimony, saying Mrs. Mandela had stopped paying them off.

Shortly after that, Mr. Mandela made his announcement, and two days later Mrs. Mandela resigned under pressure as head of the department of social welfare. Later, she was temporarily stripped of her position as regional leader of the ANC Women's League after instigating a protest on her own behalf, apparently aimed at getting the social welfare job back.

Then in October came what appeared to be the final blow to her political career when someone leaked a copy of a love letter she had allegedly written to her deputy, Dali Mpofu, a lawyer who is 28 years her junior.

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