High-profile convictions show S. Africa toughening on graft

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is appealing her sentence on 67 counts of corruption.

The house of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela stands like a fortress on a hill. Its high walls, floodlights, and armed security guards dominate the neighborhood's otherwise modest but well-kept homes. Like Mrs. Madikizela-Mandela herself, who favors brightly colored clothes and unusual hats, the house commands attention.

But here in Soweto, the vast township of several million outside Johannesburg where much of the battle against apartheid was fought, Madikizela-Mandela's ostentation is part of her charm. She is larger-than life: a glamorous, passionate hero who kept the fight against apartheid going during the 27 years that her then-husband, Nelson Mandela, languished in prison.

As such, her transgressions, such as skimming money or helping people secure loans by saying they worked for her, are forgiven here.

"She's almost like Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the poor," says P.W. Makana, a plump, born-and-bred Sowetan, as he chats with friends outside the Dunbar Take-Away, within sight of Madikizela- Mandela's house. "She's been with us through thick and thin."

Still, it was a bad week for the woman many refer to as "Mother of the Nation."

Last Friday, a court sentenced Madikizela-Mandela, president of the powerful African National Congress (ANC) Women's League and a member of Parliament, to five years in prison, with one year suspended. She was found guilty on 67 counts of fraud and theft. Unless she wins her appeal or receives a presidential pardon, she will likely spend at least eight months in prison, with the rest spent doing community service.

Later the same day, she lost a separate court battle to prevent South Africa's Parliament from censuring her for failing to declare thousands of dollars of gifts, a requirement under the country's ethics code.

Observers and opposition parties say Madikizela-Mandela's conviction, which comes two months after the conviction of Tony Yengeni, another high-ranking ANC member, who accepted a luxury car from a company involved in an arms deal, is evidence that South Africa is taking corruption seriously.

"MPs and Parliament itself have suffered under a cloud because of the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Tony Yengeni scandals," says Douglas Gibson, a spokesman for the opposition Democratic Party on hearing that the ANC Women's League president had announced her resignation from Parliament and all party posts. "It is time to stop the rot, and Madikizela-Mandela's departure from Parliament is a good start."

The ANC, which controls a clear majority in government, has been criticized in recent months for not coming down harder on wayward members.

Mr. Yengeni, nicknamed the "Gucci socialist" for his expensive taste in clothes, was not asked to resign his position in Parliament until after his conviction.

And allegations that the vice president was involved in the same arms-deal scandal that brought down Yengeni have yet to be responded to by the party.

But while many observers still say the ANC could better police itself, as one local newspaper editorialized, Madikezela-Mandela's conviction shows "the system works."

Flamboyant but generous

Madikizela-Mandela is known for her flamboyant lifestyle - she arrived to court most days in a Mercedes Benz and flanked by a phalanx of bodyguards. But she is also known for her generosity to South Africa's poorest.

Although her Soweto home is grand by neighborhood standards, locals point out she is one of the few politicians who have remained here. Nelson Mandela, for example, lives in Westcliff, an exclusive formerly white neighborhood once home to Johannesburg's mining barons.

Far from being a strike against corruption, many of Madikizela-Mandela's supporters believe her conviction is part of a white conspiracy against a woman they say has always spoken for the poor and oppressed. Much has been made of the fact that the judge who convicted and sentenced her is white.

"It's because whites are against Winnie and don't like her," says Justin Mlambo, a young barber whose stall - a blue tarp and two plastic stools - stands just outside the Dunbar Take-Away. "They have been against her from the beginning."

The looming question for many South Africans, however, is whether Madikizela-Mandela's star has permanently fallen, or if she will emerge from this tarnished but still standing. She still has a strong following, especially in Soweto, and is well known for wiggling out of situations like the one she is in now.

Finally gone too far?

In 1992, she was sentenced to six years for the kidnapping of 14-year-old Stompie Sepei, an alleged police informer killed by the gang of young men, known as the Mandela United Football Club, which was organized by Madikizela-Mandela. The sentence was reduced to parole on appeal.

She has also managed to evade punishment for a string of suspect financial dealings, including unpaid debts on her Soweto house and money missing from government departments she headed.

This time, however, many say she has gone too far.

"No one is above the law," says Memory Dlamini, looking at Madikizela-Mandela's house as she walks in tattered shoes, her 2-year-old daughter strapped to her back with a towel. "Those are our role models. They should do better."

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