Winnie Mandela is creating new rifts in S. Africa

March 18, 1995|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Even before police staged a highly publicized raid on her Soweto mansion, the travails of Winnie Mandela were dividing South Africa.

With few exceptions, white callers and letter writers on radio talk shows and in newspapers have convicted her of corruption, saying that her continued presence in the government as deputy minister of culture and science is a national embarrassment.

Many blacks dismiss the corruption allegations as an attempt by the forces that supported apartheid to discredit a powerful opponent. But it has been harder for her supporters to dismiss the fact that the police are the agents of the government dominated by the African National Congress and led by Mrs. Mandela's estranged husband, Nelson Mandela.

Police say their raid of her home March 1 was to gather evidence about an alleged kickback scheme involving contracts for low-cost housing in squatter camps. Mrs. Mandela has gone to court to challenge the legitimacy of the search warrants and has demanded the return of documents taken by police.

When the raid occurred, Mrs. Mandela was visiting the west African country of Burkina Faso, despite the government's having ordered her not to leave South Africa. She was already enmeshed in other allegations: that she had abused her position in the government to aid a concert promotion business owned by her daughter, that she had misused funds given to organizations she heads.

Her being included in the government was controversial from the start. Mrs. Mandela had already been convicted of a kidnapping and faced numerous charges of financial mismanagement. But the ANC recognized her great popularity among the poorest of the poor. The party decided it was better to have her within the government than outside it, trying to tear it down.

But her days as a deputy minister are probably numbered. Thabo Mbeki, the deputy president designated by Mr. Mandela to deal with the matter, is expected to make a decision on her fate next week.

"It would have been much better if the ANC had taken care of this quickly," said Eugene Nyati, head of the Center for African Studies. "They should have suspended her two weeks ago. The longer they wait, the more difficult it becomes."

No one is certain whether disciplining her will cause a split within the ANC, or even force it to abandon the moderation that has won it international praise.

"If she is forced out of the government, there is no doubt that she would attempt to rally populist pressure groups within the ANC," said Steve Friedman of the Johannesburg-based Center for Policy Studies.

"There is no doubt that these groups can cause some trouble within the ANC," he said. "But probably a little less trouble than Winnie and her supporters believe."

Indeed, many contend that by finally standing up to Mrs. Mandela, the ANC would discover that her support is not as deep as the party fears.

"Look, the ANC is a powerful political party that got 62 percent of the vote in the last election," said Tony Leon, head of the mainly white, liberal Democratic Party and an opponent of Mrs. Mandela. "I can't understand how it can be essentially held hostage by a handful of so-called populist leaders. They should take some action."

Still, her supporters cannot be dismissed. On a recent visit to the Kliptown squatter camp in Soweto, it was impossible to find anyone who disliked Mrs. Mandela.

"Perhaps she has done something wrong," said Mandla Mtshali. "But whatever she did is nothing compared to what the National Party people did when they enforced apartheid, when they beat us and imprisoned us and killed us and forced us from our homes. Yet we are asked to forgive and reconcile with them.

"If they cannot forgive Winnie and reconcile with her," he said, "then those words should be wiped from the dictionary."

In a middle-class section of Soweto, a few blocks away, the opinions were different.

"I don't even want to talk about Winnie," said Masoja Motha. "What she is doing to the old man, it is not right," he said, referring to Mr. Mandela. "He needs someone to support him now, and look what she is doing."

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