Murderess for South African president?

September 26, 1997|By Gwynne Dyer

IN JOHANNESBURG, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, former wife of South Africa's President Nelson Mandela, will appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) this week to answer new allegations that she committed or ordered at least five murders. The evidence for her guilt is overwhelming.

Next December, when President Mandela retires as leader of the African National Congress, Winnie will run for vice president of the ruling party. With the support of radicals disillusioned by the slow pace of change since the end of apartheid, she has a good chance of winning the party post -- and that would give her an excellent shot at becoming the entire country's vice president in the 1999 national elections.

Last year, when the self-styled ''Mother of the Nation'' fought to prevent Nelson Mandela from ending their marriage despite her flagrantly public affairs with younger men, the 78-year-old president described her as ''a continuing personal and public embarrassment to me.''

She is becoming that for South Africa as a whole. It is possible that two years from now, a known murderess will be only one heartbeat away from the presidency.

A known murderess, but not necessarily a convicted one, for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is not exactly a court.

The TRC was set up to close the books on horrors of the struggle that ended apartheid by investigating victims' accounts, considering amnesty for those who confess their roles in atrocities and recommending compensation for victims.

But Winnie has not applied for amnesty; the new evidence comes from former members of her gang of bodyguards, known as the Mandela United Football Club, who have applied for amnesty. For it was they who took the fall when the 1992 killings at Winnie Mandela's home in the Johannesburg township of Soweto came to light.

Winnie was tried and convicted for kidnapping and assault against one of the murder victims, 14-year-old Stompie Seipei. Under what South Africans cynically call the ''Important Persons Act,'' her assault conviction was quashed on appeal, and her six-year sentence for kidnapping was reduced to a $3,000 fine.

Accomplices jailed

Jerry Richardson, her chief bodyguard, got life imprisonment for the murder. Winnie's then-best friend, Xoliswa Falati, who provided her with an alibi, was jailed for two years for kidnapping and assault.

It is these former associates who have now applied for amnesty -- and since full disclosure is a condition of the amnesty process, their applications are filled with details that discredit Winnie's alibi and implicate her directly in the killing not only of Stompie but of two other youths, Lolo Sono and Siboniso Shabalala, and a woman, Kuki Zwane.

There are rumors that the applications also contain information about further murders, and the location of a mineshaft down which the bodies of the youths were thrown.

Even this might be forgiven Winnie, for all these killings took place under special circumstances. They were done in 1988-89, when apartheid still ruled and Soweto, South Africa's biggest black township, was virtually in open revolt. People were being killed by the police every other day, and many others were coerced into being police informers.

It was in this paranoid atmosphere that Winnie and her thugs carried out their murders, and in every case the victims were suspected informers. Suspected on the flimsiest grounds, given chance to prove their innocence, they were savagely murdered.

There is no excuse for what Winnie did. But if that had been all that happened, many South Africans would still give her the benefit of the doubt: She may have been drunk with power, deaf to advice, and addicted to righteous rage. But she was not truly wicked.

There are no such extenuating circumstances in the murder of Dr. Abu-Baker Asvat. He died, apparently, because he had been called to Winnie's home to examine Stompie before the boy was finally killed, and was therefore a potentially dangerous witness against her.

Dr. Asvat's murder was explained away as an armed robbery at the time, but one of the men who did the killing, now serving time in a Durban jail, has now told the TRC that he was actually paid 20,000 rand (about $4,000) for the job by Winnie. And another witness, in hiding overseas since 1989, is now prepared to testify to the TRC that Winnie asked him to drive the killers past Dr. Asvat's house.

The evidence is piling up, and it may be enough to bring Winnie to trial again on charges of murder. That would be the most spectacular courtroom drama in South Africa's long history of politically controversial trials, for Winnie is a consummate populist who is still idolized by a substantial proportion of the country's poorest and most desperate people.

There would certainly be huge demonstrations in her favor, and if she were convicted her status in the townships as saint and martyr -- a South African Evita, more or less -- might even rise.

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