Flaps in South Africa Dent Mandela's Image

PRESIDENT Nelson Mandela is trying to build solid democratic foundations with South Africa's first black majority government, but rifts within his African National Congress party and disclosures about misbehavior by prominent members are damaging his administration's credibility.

Mr. Mandela's popularity and air of moral authority remain intact. But failure to act decisively on separate scandals surrounding his estranged wife, Winnie, and former anti-apartheid activist Allan Boesak have prompted calls by opposition parties for accountability and raised questions about how far his loyalties cloud his judgment nearly one year into power.

The latest damage erupted over the weekend around Mrs. Mandela, the deputy arts, culture, science and technology minister, who is still revered by millions of blacks as the ''Mother of the Nation.'' Her political career has until now always bounced back from a series of controversies since a conviction several years ago for kidnapping and assault.

Eleven leading female politicians tendered resignations from the ANC's influential Women's League in anger over their leader's ''undemocratic behavior'' and her accusations that the ANC-led government had betrayed black people.

Mrs. Mandela incurred the wrath of league members by entering into a partnership with actor Omar Sharif to form a tourist venture set up to encourage African-American tourists to visit South African sites of struggle.

''There have been several disputes over the many months. The resignations are a culmination of problems,'' Women's League official Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said.

Mr. Mandela failed to persuade the 11 to withdraw their resignations. He then issued an ultimatum to his estranged wife that she withdraw her public criticism of the government or be fired.

She responded with a tacit apology to the government yesterday.

Mr. Mandela has generally refrained from criticizing her publicly. He and other ANC leaders recognize her popularity among radical township youths crucial to the ANC's grass-roots support. But critics increasingly say he is too soft.

''This country has survived its transition largely because its people trust and revere Mandela. If that trust is sullied by his close associates, or lost, the future of this country will be very bleak indeed,'' said an editorial in the influential Sunday Times.

Also damaging to the administration's image was Mandela's failure to immediately withdraw the nomination of Allan Boesak as South Africa's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. Mr. Boesak, facing criminal charges over missing charity funds under his control, denies wrongdoing. Mandela yesterday accepted Boesak's offer to withdraw his nomination.

Mandela, a model of integrity, has tried to lead by example. Last year, following criticisms of government ''gravy train'' privileges, he announced cuts in salary for some officials. At the party's national congress in Bloemfontein in December, he sternly criticized corruption and demanded high moral standards.

But there is a growing sense of urgency for quick damage control, especially as the country heads towards local elections planned for October. The ANC is disturbed by low voter-registration levels so far by a public disenchanted with the government's slowness to act on promised economic reforms made during April's elections.

When Mandela makes his address on Friday when Parliament reconvenes, he will probably be forced to defend campaign promises of an honest government.

Opposition parties have threatened acrimonious debates if the ANC does not act strongly on allegations of corruption.

''It is one shameful page after the other in the first chapter of the new South Africa,'' Democratic Party leader Tony Leon said.

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