A President Fires His Wife

March 29, 1995

Not every president gets to appoint his wife to government, even at the sub-cabinet level, or then to fire her. President Nelson Mandela's ouster of his estranged wife, Winnie, as deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology preserves the unity of his government -- and reinforces the British model of collective responsibility.

Mrs. Mandela violated that by denouncing her husband's government for kowtowing to privileged whites, for including former white rulers and for spending money on the visit of Queen Elizabeth II. Mrs. Mandela flew to a film festival in West Africa after President Mandela forbade it. In the parliamentary system, all ministers and deputy ministers must be team players. She is anything but, and was getting away with it.

Granted, team spirit is challenging when the minority partner in the coalition is the former white National Party government that oppressed blacks. But when President Mandela makes that work, which he has done with distinction, Mrs. Mandela has no business undermining it. Police suspicion of her in an alleged kickback scheme and the controversies swirling around her for years have something to do with this.

What Nelson Mandela did not do, however, was curtail the possible difficulties that Winnie Mandela can make for his moderate coalition government. She is freer to make trouble than ever. She remains president of the Women's League of the African National Congress (ANC), and a member of parliament. It is easier, now, for militant opposition to rally round her as spokesperson for black consciousness and redistribution of wealth.

Winnie Mandela is still popular. Yet her charismatic standing always depended on glory reflected from her husband, to whom she was loyal through 27 years of his imprisonment and government harassment of her. All parties, including the ANC and Communists, approved of her dismissal except the militant Pan Africanist Congress.

Clearly this estrangement and the controversies involving Mrs. Mandela, 61, are hard for Mr. Mandela, 76, to bear. But he is building a nation, more successfully than anyone could have predicted. Once more, he has done the right thing.

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