Winnie Mandela, wife of African National Congress President Nelson Mandela, said yesterday that she was resigning as head of the ANC's social welfare department, her most senior position in the organization.

"The step that I am taking is not because of the false allegation against me, but because of the devotion that I have for the ANC and my family," said an emotional Mrs. Mandela. "I have taken the step because I consider it to be in the best interest of the ANC, whose cause and policies I will support until the end of my life."

Mrs. Mandela read a prepared statement at a news conference at the ANC headquarters.

She did not refer to her position as a member of the ANC's national executive committee. ANC officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said this would likely be reviewed at the committee's May meeting.

Mrs. Mandela portrayed the new allegations against her as an attempt to divide the ANC and both "hamper and divert us" from the task of ending apartheid and gaining freedom for all South Africans.

Western diplomats and political scientists said it was a wise and timely decision that would strengthen the ANC.

"It is not Winnie Mandela that is at issue here," said one diplomat. "It is the unacceptable methods she is associated with that need to be - and now have been - repudiated."

"This liberates the ANC from a very heavy millstone which it has carried around its neck," says Robert Schrire, professor of politics at the University of Cape Town.

Mrs. Mandela's resignation came 48 hours after her husband announced the couple was separating after almost 34 years of marriage.

On Tuesday, according to a highly-placed ANC source, Mr. Mandela urged his wife to resign her posts. But Mrs. Mandela had to be forced into making the announcement by a unanimous decision of the ANC's national working committee, the source added.

The announcement followed a series of new allegations that Mrs. Mandela was involved in the murder of a 14-year-old anti-apartheid activist and a prominent Soweto physician who is widely believed to have examined the youth after he was beaten in her home.

Mrs. Mandela, speaking through her lawyer, has denied the new allegations.

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