South Africa's Teflon Lady

Truth Commission hearing this week for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is her latest challenge.

At the Million Woman March in Philadelphia last month, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was a guest of honor, feted as a symbol of black feminist resistance and strength.

But this week in Johannesburg, the woman whose fans still call her "the mother of the nation" will have to play to a much tougher hometown crowd. Hundreds of witnesses, victims, and members of the public, together with innumerable hordes of lawyers and reporters, will pack into the long, airless hall of the Johannesburg Institute for Social Services.

There, for the next five days, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission - led in person by its Nobel Prize-winning chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu - will grill Mrs. Madikizela-Mandela over a string of allegations including kidnapping, battery, and involvement in at least 13 murders. About 30 witnesses, including senior members of her own African National Congress (ANC), are expected to implicate the divorced wife of President Nelson Mandela in a wave of killings and assaults carried out by members of the Mandela United Football Club. The club, which served as de facto bodyguards, was a group of youths who lived at her Soweto mansion in the late 1980s.

Most of the alleged victims were anti-apartheid activists who had fallen out with Mandela United or who were suspected of being police informers.

For Madikizela-Mandela, one of the modern world's great survivors, this week could be the toughest challenge yet. While the TRC is essentially a fact-finding body with no power to prosecute, political analysts say that both Madikizela-Mandela's reputation and freedom are at stake.

Anything less than a brilliant performance is likely to ruin her bid to win the deputy presidency of the ANC next month. The commission could also recommend that Madikizela-Mandela be prosecuted in the normal courts. While it has power to grant amnesty to political offenders who confess their crimes, Madikizela-Mandela has persistently denied any guilt and refused to apply.

Despite the challenge ahead, few South Africans are prepared to forecast the end of Madikizela-Mandela's public life. In recent years she has survived numerous controversies, including a conviction for kidnapping 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, who was found beaten to death in January 1989, and revelations that she misappropriated 160,000 rand (then $45,000) from an ANC welfare fund.

Many black South Africans still remember her as the fiery populist who publicly defied apartheid while her husband languished in jail. That image, says Tom Lodge of the University of the Witwatersrand, is difficult to shake.

"The kind of information that moves her supporters is not necessarily the kind of information that moves you and I," he says. "Many of them don't regularly read newspapers and in any case see a conspiracy in allegations that derive from people who they feel they have no reason to trust."

Political observers say that the ANC's moderate leadership is worried that her election to a senior role in the party would drive away badly needed foreign investment. Some are speculating that the flood of new evidence against Madikizela-Mandela could be intended to bring her down to size before the ANC conference.

Her repeated public attacks on the government's record on providing housing and other services has also grated with many. Dudu Chili, an ANC activist whose 13-year-old niece, Finkie Msomi, was shot dead when Mandela United members attacked her home in February 1989, says Madikizela-Mandela is merely exploiting the desperation of the homeless and unemployed. "She goes to the squatter camps and she says, 'I will give you all houses.' If you have nothing, like these people who have no money, nothing to eat, then why should you not believe her? You have nothing to lose."

Although leaks from the TRC indicate that new allegations - including of at least one of murder - will be made against Madikizela-Mandela this week, many of the accusations have been aired before in the media. But in only one case - the murder of Stompie - did authorities make any effort to investigate Madikizela-Mandela's role.

This crime, and the allegedly related killing of Abu Baker Asvat, a Black Consciousness activist and doctor, are likely to be at center stage again this week. A number of witnesses who swore Madikizela-Mandela was out of town when Stompie was beaten and murdered have since retracted their testimonies. Several have a motive to recant - two are in prison for Stompie's murder and hope to gain amnesty. But much speculation now centers on the testimony of Albertina Sisulu, a highly respected anti-apartheid activist. She is widely believed to have evidence that destroys Madikizela-Mandela's alibi for the Stompie killing. Mrs. Sisulu, who was Dr. Asvat's secretary when he was called to treat the injured Stompie, is reported to have filled out a patient registration card that proves that Madikizela-Mandela was in Soweto, and not in Brandfort as claimed.

A month later, Asvat was shot by two gunmen, one of whom later told police he had been hired to do so by Madikizela-Mandela. The police's failure to follow up this evidence was one of a series of omissions that has led to speculation about a cover-up, possibly to protect delicate ANC-government negotiations then beginning in secret.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.