THE African National Congress (ANC) is facing a potential rebellion as militant elements of its youth and military wings close ranks around Winnie Mandela, who is facing new allegations over her role in the murder of two Soweto activists.
Mrs. Mandela, who denies the new claims, has won the backing of Harry Gwala, the ANC's most senior radical and chairman of the ANC's Natal Midlands branch. She also appears to have won the backing of key elements in the South African Communist Party (SACP), which is led by the former chief of staff of the ANC's military wing, Chris Hani, known to be one of Mrs. Mandela's closest confidantes.
"Those who are writing her political obituary are going to be proved wrong," says a member of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). "They are underestimating the strength and spirit of this stalwart of the struggle."
The Sunday Times of Johannesburg reported yesterday that Mrs. Mandela had also won the backing of the militant ANC Youth League and militants in Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).
ANC Youth League leader Peter Mokaba, a confidante of Mrs. Mandela's, has vowed that the League would stand behind her.
"We are going to confound those who are biting her behind her back," Mr. Mokaba told the Sunday Times. "She has my support, and she can be assured of the political support of all those who support me."
The ANC is close to reaching agreement with the government over joint control of the arms caches and submitting its military wing to multiparty control.
A parting of ways between moderates and radicals at this point could create a split which would favor the militants and leave them well armed.
"It is a potentially disastrous situation," says a Western diplomat. "It is essential that the ANC leadership acts immediately to limit Winnie's influence."
The storm surrounding Mrs. Mandela increased yesterday as the country's two main Sunday newspapers alleged coverups by both the state and the ANC to avoid disclosure of Mrs. Mandela's full involvement in the deaths of 14-year-old activist Stompie Moeketsi Seipei and physician Abu-Baker Asvat, who was gunned down three weeks after Stompie was murdered.
Xoliswa Falati, a codefendant in Mrs. Mandela's kidnap and assault trial, told the Sunday Star that Mrs. Mandela had been directly involved in the assault of four black youths abducted from a Methodist manse in December 1988. Mrs. Mandela claimed at the time - and during her trial last year - that she was rescuing the youths from being sexually assaulted by the white minister in charge of the manse.
But Mrs. Mandela's claims have been denied by youths who lived in the manse, and the minister concerned has been cleared by a church investigation.
After the death of Asvat on Jan. 27, 1989, Mrs. Mandela claimed that he had been assassinated because he was the only person who could provide medical proof of the homosexual assault. But five anti-apartheid leaders involved in limiting the political fallout from Stompie's murder said this weekend that Asvat had denied to them that he had examined the boys or had any medical records of homosexual assaults.
Breaking a three-year silence, the five church and anti-apartheid leaders - including the Rev. Beyers Naude and the Rev. Frank Chikane - denied that their so-called Mandela Crisis Committee had been part of any "coverup."
But Tokyo Sexwale, an official of the ANC's military wing, conceded recently that his Special Projects Department had been involved in the abduction last year of a key state witness in the Mandela trial, Pelo Mekgwe.
Two codefendants in her trial - Mrs. Falati and John Morgan - have said in recent weeks that they lied to protect her. Four other codefendants disappeared just before the trial began.
One of the four, Katiza Cebekhulu, who was interviewed by a Zambian human rights lawyer on The Christian Science Monitor's behalf last November, claims he was spirited out of the country days after the trial began. Mr. Cebekhulu said he had first-hand evidence of Mrs. Mandela's involvement in the deaths of Stompie and Asvat.
Mrs. Mandela resigned as head of the ANC Social Welfare Department last week, but has refused to relinquish her position on the ANC's national executive committee and still holds two senior positions in the ANC Women's League. She faces reelection on May 3 as head of the Johannesburg region of the League.
While moderates in the ANC leadership want her to quit her remaining posts, they fear her potential to take a significant militant section of the ANC with her and thereby gain control of vast quantities of arms hidden in black townships and rural areas.
They argue that while she was answerable to her husband and to the ANC's national working committee, a 20-member inner cabinet, her activities could be restrained.
"Now she is going to feel free to act in her own right," says an ANC official speaking on condition of anonymity. "I hope people now realize why we haven't acted against Winnie before. She can still cause havoc in the organization," the official adds.
This week Mrs. Mandela went on the campaign trail in Soweto within 48 hours of her decision to bow to pressure to resign her social welfare post. On Friday she was in a war of words with a senior white police officer at Soweto's Power Park squatter camp where two people had been shot dead that day.
Mrs. Mandela accused the De Klerk administration of being a "terrorist government that has unleashed its forces to attack defenceless men and women in their sleep." She was cheered and applauded by about 300 squatters who gathered around her.
Mrs. Mandela enjoys significant support within a section of MK, with which she enjoyed close links in the years that the ANC was outlawed in South Africa.
Umkhonto cadres say that her home in Soweto, to which she returned from a decade of banishment in 1985, was always a refuge and replenishment stop for guerrillas operating in the ANC underground.