Winnie Mandela, Controversial Maverick Of South African Politics, Regains Power

Former Wife Of President Is Overwhelmingly Elected To Lead Women Of Anc

April 29, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Winnie Madikizela-Mandela -- divorced from the country's president, sacked from her government job, reprieved from a prison sentence -- is back, and in a big way.

Her weekend re-election as president of the Women's League of the ruling African National Congress puts her in a key political position as the nation starts to prepare for the 1999 election of a successor to her former husband, President Nelson Mandela.

Her triumph also coincided with the country's Freedom Day celebration of the first democratic elections here in 1994, which ended the era of apartheid and opened the way for the creation of what is proudly called a "rainbow nation."

President Mandela and other ANC leaders, who are now stressing the need for party unity, will have to deal closely with a woman whose bizarre behavior and outspoken views they have frequently found both embarrassing and infuriating.

The personal relationship between the Mandelas has been strained since before their 1992 separation and 1995 divorce.

This opened the way for the 78-year-old president to form a relationship with Graca Machel, the 51-year-old widow of Mozambique's late president, Samora Machel.

Machel has been Mandela's official companion several times and there has been wide speculation about -- and pressure from religious leaders for -- a marriage.

Long-standing popularity

Politically, Madikizela-Mandela, whose popularity dates back to her staunch support of "the struggle" while her husband was in jail for 27 years, has always been a controversial maverick.

Most recently it was disclosed in Parliament that the state had spent $8,500 repairing two government-owned cars she continued to use more than four months after she was dismissed by her former husband as deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology.

She blamed the government's VIP drivers for damaging the cars.

The auditor general has ruled that $25,000 she spent on a 1994 overseas trip, which Deputy President Thabo Mbeki told her not to take, was an "unauthorized expenditure."

But these were minor embarrassments compared with her earlier transgressions, which included her involvement in the 1988 kidnapping of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, who was murdered by her bodyguard.

She was sentenced to six years' imprisonment for her part in the kidnapping of Seipei and three other youths, but the jail term was eventually reduced to a fine.

Personal charisma

She has used personal charisma and loyal grass-roots support to overcome her setbacks.

"Bear in mind that she has been involved in scandals that would have destroyed any other politician," commented an editorial in yesterday's Citizen newspaper here.

Her overwhelming re-election as women's president -- she got 656 of the 783 votes cast -- was assured when the candidate favored by the ANC leadership, health minister Nkosana Zuma, withdrew after hearing the spontaneous reception that Madikizela-Mandela received on entering the hall.

Her only other opponent was her lesser-known deputy, Thandi Modise, a member of Parliament and a former freedom fighter.

Originally elected president of the group in 1993, Madikizela-Mandela came under increasing challenge for her "autocratic and undemocratic" leadership, which two years ago provoked the resignations of 11 members of the executive council and threw the organization into crisis.

But the weekend vote showed that she could still overcome all opposition and confirmed her as a major figure on the political scene.

Madikizela-Mandela wasted no time in asserting her reinvigorated power, lambasting the news media for spreading "absurdities" about her private life.

She said she had instructed her lawyers to deal with a newspaper report that alleged she faced mounting debts.

With the sort of defiance that has become her trademark, she said: "Which black person doesn't have a problem with a bond? I am proud of my poverty."

She warned the party that unless it quickly started working with the women's group to prepare for the election in two years, it would be too late.

She committed herself to championing the cause of rural women and called on the leadership to speed up delivery of the social and economic improvements it has promised the majority.

"We once said we had not heard the last of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela," said the Citizen's editorial. "How true."

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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