Mandela ex-wife's moments of truth Witnesses tell panel that she sanctioned murder, torture

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

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Winnie Madikizela-Mandela faced her accusers yesterday as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission opened weeklong hearings here to establish whether she is a ruthless murderer or a much-maligned woman.

This is no trial, and there will be no guilty or innocent verdict at the end of it. But it is an attempt to get as close to the truth as possible about the involvement of the controversial former wife of President Nelson Mandela in the violence and bloodshed that engulfed those around her as apartheid was ending.

"We are not here to put anyone in the dock," said Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the commission chairman, as Madikizela-Mandela sat before him flanked by her lawyers. "We are not intent on pillorying, ridiculing or humiliating anyone.

"Our objective is to find out the truth in order to assist in the process of healing our land, to promote reconciliation and to ensure the awful things we are hearing will not happen again."

Nevertheless, what transpires here over the next few days is likely to damage or bolster the image of a politician whose impoverished supporters are in the streets and whose foes always have been in the corridors of power. Shehas campaigned vigorously for better housing, health and education for the poor.

The focus of the hearings is the Mandela United Football Club, which guarded Madikizela-Mandela with the same zeal that they applied to terrorizing her perceived enemies.

By her own choice, the evidence is being heard in public. She felt a wider audience would serve her purposes better as she strives to clear her name.

The opening witnesses, who set what will be the pattern of allegations, included:

Her former driver, John Morgan, who alleged she was present when Stompie Seipei, a teen-age activist accused of being a police spy, was beaten and killed in her home in 1989. She was convicted and fined for involvement in Seipei's kidnapping. Morgan also told of delivering four youths to her Soweto home, where they were beaten and tortured. He alleged she was present when the four were tortured.

The father of 21-year-old Lolo Sono. The young man disappeared after members of the football club picked him up, allegedly on her orders. Nicodemus Sono last saw his son, beaten and bruised, when he was being driven away in a blue minivan with Madikizela-Mandela in the front seat. She told him, he alleged, that Lolo Sono was a police spy and "the movement [the African National Congress, which now is the major partner in government] would decide what to do with him."

The mother of Sibonisa Shabalala. He disappeared after two members of the football club picked him up at home after he was labeled "a spy."

An admitted participant in the killing of a woman who allegedly observed a political assassination. Thami Hlatswayo, a member of the football club, said Madikizela-Mandela felt the woman "knew too much."

A woman who claims she was beaten twice after Madikizela-Mandela discovered they shared a lover, a chauffeur. Phumille Dlamini, sister of a football club member, said she was beaten on Madikizela-Mandela's orders when she was three months pregnant. She claims the beating contributed to the learning difficulties of her son, now 9.

More than 40 witness are expected to be called.

Madikizela-Mandela, president of the ANC's Women's League, is candidate for the party's deputy presidency when her former husband steps down next month as party president to make way for the current deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, to succeed him. (Mbeki also is expected to replace Mandela as national president when his term is up in 1999.)

The party leadership has moved to block her by unifying on a single candidate to oppose her. It now will take an unlikely floor revolt at the party's orchestrated conference next month to give Madikizela-Mandela a chance at the second spot.

She has launched a blistering attack on the party, saying it has not responded quickly enough to the needs of the disadvantaged majority, is soft on crime and is refusing to put the issue of re-instituting the death penalty to a referendum.

In return, she has been disparaged as "a charlatan" and "an armchair populist" by influential party members, who are suspected of acting with the blessing of the hierarchy who are seeking to diminish her influence.

All this has given particular edge to a hearing that was inevitably going to be heavy with political import and filled with charges and countercharges. Madikizela-Mandela, who previously has denied knowing about any of the killings, is expected to have the last word in her own defense Friday.

The commission allows hearsay evidence, opening the door to uncorroborated accusations that would not stand the test of a criminal trial but will help shape the outcome of the hearings.

Thus, Nomsa Shabalala, whose son disappeared nine years ago, was able to say: "Winnie had killed them. Yes, she killed them, just like Stompie. I wasn't there, but they were in the same group. It was the football club."

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