Winnie Mandela's ruthlessness prompted drive to isolate her Witnesses tell of being cowed by her power

November 28, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had become so frighteningly powerful and ruthless in the late 1980s that both local and national political movements tried to isolate the wife of the man who was to become president, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was told yesterday.

The commission, which is trying to exorcise the devils in this country's recent past, is investigating the violence surrounding Madikizela-Mandela, who is a candidate for the vice presidency of the ruling African National Congress when her former husband, Nelson Mandela steps down as party leader next month.

Only one witness yesterday, a security official, directly linked Madikizela-Mandela to a reign of beatings and other abuses by the Mandela United Football Club, her notorious group of bodyguards.

"At best for Mrs. Mandela, she was aware of and encouraged this criminal activity. At worst she directed it and actively participated in the assaults," said Azhar Cachalia, the security // official.

In the 1980s, Cachalia was a leader in the Mass Democratic Movement, one of the leading underground movements of "the struggle" against apartheid. It officially "distanced itself from Madikizela-Mandela, while reaffirming its loyalty to Nelson Mandela, then a prisoner of South Africa's white apartheid government.

Painting a picture of the atmosphere in which Madikizela-Mandela created her football club, Cachalia said a government state of emergency had disrupted organized opposition to apartheid.

In the black townships, gangs of disaffected youths formed street patrols, dispensing violent justice and challenging the traditional authority of the elders.

"This was the climate in which Mrs. Mandela created her own vigilante gang, Mandela United Football Club," said Cachalia.

In one of the most horrific cases, he said, two youths, suspected of being police informers, were brought to the Mandela house, where the words "Viva ANC" were carved into their flesh. The letter "M" was sliced into the chest of one youth with a penknife, and battery acid was poured into his wounds.

The violence waged by Madikizela-Mandela's football club reached its climax with the kidnapping and beating of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei and three other young men who fell afoul of the "mother of the nation."

Stabbed body found

Stompie, suspected of being a police informer, was given the most savage beating at Mandela's Soweto home on Dec. 29, 1988. It left him lame and blind. His stabbed body was found buried a week later.

Before then, the Mandela Crisis Committee, a group of leaders in the anti-apartheid movement, tried to intervene.

The committee of church and community elders called on all progressive movements to ban Madikizela-Mandela from their platforms and for the football club to be dismantled.

The committee also demanded that Madikizela-Mandela stop claiming to speak in the name of "the people."

Resistance stiffened

Madikizela-Mandela's resistance only stiffened. For more than two weeks, she dismissed the crisis committee's pleas to release the four detainees and demands for compliance from her husband.

One striking revelation that ran through testimony yesterday was reluctance of the mediators to demand early access to the four detainees or to question Madikizela-Mandela's assurances that they were in good condition, even after one of the young men had escaped and reported how they were abducted and beaten, and how Stompie, apparently close to death, had disappeared.

"You could have asked to see them," Alex Borrain, vice chairman of the commission, told the Rev. Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, a RomanCatholic priest who went to the Mandela house to seek the release of the young men but failed to demand access to them.

"Then you would have had greater knowledge about the condition of the children, and then you would have known that at least one was either missing, desperately ill, or dead."

Another of those who readily accepted Madikizela-Mandela's assurance that the young men were "safe and sound" at her house was the Rev. Otto Mbangula, a Methodist minister.

Under questioning by commissioner Fazel Randera yesterday, he acknowledged that one reason was that Madikizela-Mandela was such a powerful figure in her own right and the wife of the country's most esteemed politician.

Intimidation denied

"I think that's true to a point," he said. Local political leaders, who also failed to press for access to the young men, denied it was because they were intimidated by "Comrade Winnie."

Katisa Cebekhulu, a former member of the football club, told the commission this week that he saw Madikizela-Mandela stab Stompie's limp body twice in the back yard of her house.

In 1991, Madikizela-Mandela was sentenced to six years in prison for kidnapping and assault in the case involving Stompie and the other three young men. Her sentence was reduced on appeal to a $3,200 fine.

Cachalia ended his statement by saying the commission should recommend that anyone convicted of such abuses be barred from holding public office. The hearing room then erupted into applause.

Jerry Richardson, the coach of her football club, has applied to the commission for amnesty for cutting Stompie's throat with a pair of garden shears, and for the murder of two other youths, suspected of being police spies.

Richardson's lawyer has told the commission that the killings were carried out with the knowledge and cooperation of Madikizela-Mandela.

He is scheduled to testify at the hearings, which are to end next week. Madikizela-Mandela will be the last person to speak.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is investigating apartheid-era human rights abuses for a report it will compile next year aimed at promoting reconciliation. It lacks the power to press criminal charges, but can turn over evidence to police for investigation.

Pub Date: 11/28/97

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