Mandela fires Winnie

March 28, 1995|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- President Nelson Mandela dismissed his estranged wife Winnie from her job in the South African government yesterday, a move that could put strains on the still-delicate structures of this new democracy.

Some action against Mrs. Mandela has been expected since her lavish Soweto house was raided by police earlier this month. Seized in the search were documents that police said were related to a corruption investigation involving kickbacks on low-cost housing.

Though Mrs. Mandela successfully challenged the search warrant in court and had all documents taken by the police returned, the charges are still being investigated.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Mandela will keep her seat in Parliament and in the ruling African National Congress Party.

In a brief news conference in Cape Town, a somber Mr. Mandela said:

"This decision has been taken both in the interest of good government and to ensure the highest standards of discipline among leading officials in the government.

"I hope this decision will help the former deputy minister to review her position and seek to improve on her own conduct in positions of responsibility so as to enable her to make the positive contribution to society her talents would enable her."

Mrs. Mandela is expected to make a statement today. Yesterday, her spokesman would only say that she was shocked by the decision and had not known that it was coming.

Though her position as deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology was relatively minor, the symbolism was not. A ** populist proud of her radical views, Mrs. Mandela has never fit comfortably into a government that emphasized reconciliation over revolution.

But inside that government, Mrs. Mandela was committed to give at least a facade of support to its policies. Out of the Cabinet, she will have no such reins on her.

A charismatic leader with considerable support among the most deprived members of South African society -- the rural poor, the urban shack dwellers -- Mrs. Mandela has the potential to become a leader of a movement within the African National Congress aimed at forcing the government more to the left.

But many political commentators here think that her power has been overestimated and that she will never be more than a thorn in the side of the dominant moderate elements in the ANC, particularly as long as Mr. Mandela opposes her positions.

The dismissal unleashed a clearly choreographed outpouring of support for the move from a variety of political parties.

"President Mandela has acted responsibly and fully within his mandate, and he enjoys our unequivocal support for this step," said a joint statement by leaders of the ANC, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

"We say this with a sense of compassion for Mrs. Mandela. Winnie Mandela has been a courageous anti-apartheid fighter over the past few decades," the statement said. "Her courageous struggles inspired many anti-apartheid fighters of our country.

"However, it has always been a fundamental principle of our liberation movement that no individual, regardless of prestige, popularity or track record, should stand above the basic norms of discipline."

Mr. Mandela also acknowledged his wife's role in the anti-apartheid struggle, saying he had dismissed her only "after great reflection."

The complaints against Mrs. Mandela are only the latest of many against her. Some involved corruption, others her autocratic leadership, others her actions in Soweto in the 1980s when the Winnie Mandela Soccer Club allegedly conducted a reign of terror over sections of the sprawling township.

The 1989 death of a 14-year-old boy at the hands of club members resulted in Mrs. Mandela's conviction on kidnapping charges, a conviction that almost kept her off the ANC's list of parliamentary candidates. Only by getting her jail sentence overturned on appeal was she legally allowed to stand for elective office.

Still, she might have retained her position had she not in recent nTC months begun to voice strident criticism of the government of which she was a member. She formally apologized for a first round of statements condemning the government for its lack of action for the poor, but later said she did not write the letter of apology and signed it under duress.

Her position became more tenuous in recent weeks. And she became more strident. She was criticized not only for the allegations from the police raid, but also for being away on a trip to a film festival in West Africa against Mr. Mandela's wishes when the police moved in.

Over the weekend, she denounced last week's visit by Queen Elizabeth, claiming that the $750,000 spent by the government could have been put to better use.

Mrs. Mandela became an internationally-known figure during the 27 years her husband was jailed, surviving harassment and punishment by the apartheid government as she helped to keep Mr. Mandela's name before the world.

Though Mr. Mandela strolled out of jail in 1990 holding his wife's hand, two years later, with Mrs. Mandela on trial for kidnapping and murder and newspapers filled with reports of her love affairs, the couple separated.

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