Winnie Mandela hired him to slay uncooperative doctor, says killer Witness' disappearance, death threat chill probe by S. African truth panel

December 02, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Amid allegations of witness intimidation, a convicted murderer told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission yesterday that he was carrying out the orders of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela when he killed a popular township doctor who was "disturbing her."

Zakele Mbatha said Madikizela-Mandela, then the wife of an imprisoned Nelson Mandela, offered the killer and an accomplice about $4,000 to shoot Dr. Abu-Baker Asvat in his Soweto clinic in 1989. She also gave them the murder weapon, Mbatha testified.

The motive: Asvat had examined teen-ager Stompie Seipei, who was beaten at the Mandela house, and also refused to give a medical certificate confirming the false allegation that a Mandela associate had been sodomized by a local cleric.

Differences due to torture

Like many witnesses before him, Mbatha created as much confusion as clarity, contradicting earlier statements he had made to police and in court, when he did not mention Madikizela-Mandela's involvement.

He explained the differences by saying he was tortured by the police and he did not know whom to trust.

But if individual credibility is in short supply, the sheer weight of accumulated evidence against Madikizela-Mandela is overwhelming, as witness after witness involves her in a reign of terror in Soweto in the late 1980s.

The commission is seeking to learn what happened on both sides of the anti-apartheid struggle. For a week it has been looking into the conduct of Madikizela-Mandela, who was convicted of aiding in Stompie's abduction but not of his murder, to which witnesses have now linked her.

The grip of terror appeared to stretch into the hearing room itself.

Mbatha's lawyer said he had received death threats within 48 hours of agreeing to represent him. He said Mbatha was intimidated by Madikizela-Mandela's supporters, who were present at the session.

'Mammy' intimidation

Piers Pigou, a commission lawyer, also reported that another expected witness had disappeared after a visit by "Mammy," meaning Madikizela-Mandela, and a friend.

Ishamil Semenya, Madikizela-Mandela's lawyer, denied any interference with witnesses. But Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the truth commission chairman, said: "There is no doubt at all, there are some people who feel intimidated, whatever the reason."

Police Superintendent Fred Dempsey said that during his investigations into Stompie's death in 1989, he tried to find witnesses to testify about Madikizela-Mandela's presence during the assault.

"As soon as one mentioned Mrs. Mandela it was like switching off a light and the people just refused to testify," he said.

Dissatisfied with police handling of the investigations, Alex Borraine, deputy chairman of the commission, told Dempsey: "I suggest to you, your light went off as well."

Dempsey said he was ordered by the attorney general not to approach Madikizela-Mandela until he had enough evidence, and then only with the attorney general's permission.

'All fingers' point to her

He said that in Stompie's murder and other cases "all fingers pointed at Mrs. Mandela." When he did try to interview her, her lawyer invoked her right to silence.

Among those who declined to testify, said Dempsey, was Albertina Sisulu, a long-time friend of Madikizela-Mandela. Sisulu, who was the murdered doctor's nurse, appeared at yesterday's hearing, but was a cautious witness.

Her performance prompted Dumisa Ntsebeza, head of the commission's investigative unit, to tell her: "Could it be that you are trying your very, very best to say as little as possible about your colleague, your comrade, and saying as little as might incriminate or implicate her?

Toward the end of an 11-hour session on the sixth day of the hearings, a frustrated Borraine said: "We have heard lots of lies, half lies and the truth, the whole spectrum."

Madikizela-Mandela is expected to have the last word, when she testifies to the commission, probably tomorrow.

Pub Date: 12/02/97

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