Mother of S. Africa on a tightrope Mandela's ex-wife balances run for office, allegations of murder

September 25, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The controversial Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, former wife of South African President Nelson Mandela, is precariously balanced these days between renewed accusation and ever greater acclaim.

A convicted kidnapper who faces new allegations of murder, she also is a candidate for the deputy presidency of the ruling African National Congress, which her former husband heads.

It is the sort of brouhaha on which the fiery politician once dubbed "Mother of the Nation," appears to thrive, but it places the ANC in an embarrassing dilemma.

Her selection this month by the women's wing of the ANC to be their candidate for the party's vice presidency could put her in line to become deputy president of the nation when her ex-husband steps down as president in 1999.

Mandela will resign from the party presidency at the ANC Congress in December, making way for his heir apparent, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, to replace him, first as party leader then, two years later, as national leader.

Madikizela-Mandela, president of the Women's League of the ANC, is a charismatic campaigner with a strong following within the party and must be considered a leading candidate for the deputy's post at both the party and national levels. She is renowned for overcoming serious setbacks. In 1993, despite her conviction two years earlier for kidnapping 14-year-old ANC activist Stompie Seipei, who had fallen afoul of her and was killed, and a well-publicized love affair with a young suitor, she was elected Women's League president.

Twelve months later she was voted onto the ANC's national executive, drawing the fifth-highest vote tally. And in April, with controversy still swirling around her, she was re-elected Women's League president, beating her only opponent by a 6-to-1 margin.

Her accession to national power would send shock waves through the party leadership, which is adopting a gradual approach to social reform and striving to stick to a middle-of-the-road economic strategy to keep its union allies and big business in line and to attract foreign investment.

Madikizela-Mandela, a populist champion of the poor and an unabashed Africanist, is devoted to improving the lives, health, homes and education of the disadvantaged and to empowering blacks through stronger affirmative action programs.

All this is in line with government priorities, but she is much less patient and accommodating than have been her former husband and his Cabinet.

With her in a leadership position, a myriad of policy strains, inside and outside the party, would likely be pushed to the fore.

Her influence on policy would likely increase the concerns of the white minority, threatening an accelerated exodus, a brain drain that South Africa, which is bedeviled by low economic growth, could ill afford. And foreign investors would hardly be reassured by the elevation of such a flamboyant leftist, possibly putting a crimp on overseas financing the country sorely needs, analysts say.

Her political prospects are hostage, to an extent, to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which this week will investigate her involvement in the death of Seipei and the disappearance of two other youths during the 1980s. The hearing will be in Johannesburg, behind closed doors.

On Tuesday, the truth commission told Madikizela-Mandela to appear in person tomorrow and Saturday when her lawyers argue for a three-week postponement of her questioning over murder allegations.

Madikizela-Mandela has challenged the commission to hold the hearings in public, which the panel has refused to do. Her lawyers were quoted Sunday in local newspapers as saying they needed more time to prepare.

"Should a postponement be refused, the inquiry will be convened and proceed immediately," Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel peace laureate and the commission's chairman, said Tuesday.

"Unless the Truth and Reconciliation Commission clears Madikizela-Mandela of these charges, her continued political ascent could do irreparable harm to the ANC and the country as a whole," says the Financial Mail, a business-oriented weekly magazine.

None of this fazes her. No sooner had new allegations of her involvement in the murder of Seipei been published then she called a news conference to declare her innocence and to state that she was ready "to bare my soul to the scrutiny of my country and beg that these issues be tested by the vigilance of the public."

The charges come from a former member of her Mandela United Football Club, a group of young, violent supporters she gathered around her in the 1980s. Her accuser is Katiza Cebekhulu, a suspected police informer who was accused with her in the Seipei kidnapping case but disappeared on the eve of the trial. He has asked the Truth Commission for amnesty for his involvement in the crime.

In his book, "Katiza's Journey: Beneath the Surface of South Africa's Shame," written with Fred Bridgland, a former British newspaper correspondent here, he accuses Madikizela-Mandela of stabbing Seipei at her house.

He writes: "I can't say whether it was a knife or a pair of scissors. I saw her lift her hand and stab Stompie twice. " Madikizela-Mandela has maintained she was out of town when Seipei was killed in December 1988. The "coach" of the Mandela United Football Club, Jerry Richardson, who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder, said in an interview with South African Broadcasting Corp. last week that Madikizela-Mandela ordered the killing but took no part in it.

The question of who is telling the truth now goes to the truth commission. But the question of Madikizela-Mandela's political future may take longer to resolve.

Pub Date: 9/25/97

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