Africa's broken idol

Winnie: Africa's broken idol
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"A paranoid," said William Burroughs, "is a person in possession of all the facts." If so, South Africans are in for some intense psychic disturbance in weeks to come as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission begins to probe Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's role in crimes

ranging from assault and perjury to torture and murder, including a hitherto unknown case in which Winnie is alleged to have ordered the execution of her rival in a love triangle. The erstwhile "Mother of the Nation" has been named in connection with no fewer than eight killings, the TRC said this week, a revelation topped only by her emergence as a serious contender for the number-two slot in the ruling African National Congress, a position that would put her within striking distance of the state presidency. Our minds, as they say, are bending.

The accusations now before the TRC date back several years and come for the most part from ex-bodyguards, former hangers-on and sycophants seeking to evade punishment for their own crimes by claiming amnesty, a move eased by the admission that Winnie was a unit commander in the ANC's underground army. Her military status, hitherto held secret by a movement that once presented Mrs Mandela to the world as a non-violent "civil rights activist", opens the way for her minions to claim that their actions were politically motivated and carried out under military discipline, although how this will play in the case of Kuki Zwane remains to be seen.

An attractive 23-year-old, Ms Zwane lived a few houses away from the Mandelas and was a childhood friend of Winnie's younger daughter, Zindzi. In the late Eighties she began to hang out on the fringes of the Mandela United Football Club, the infamous gang of teenage thugs and young lions who acted as Mrs Mandela's enforcers. She is said to have fallen pregnant by a footballer named Shakes, with whom Winnie is reputed to have been simultaneously infatuated. In December 1988 Winnie reportedly complained to her household that Kuki was "bothering" her. A few days later the girl was found stabbed to death in a shallow grave. The police buried her as a pauper and her body was not identified until 1995.

Her killing remains unsolved but last week the Football Club coach, Jerry Richardson - already serving a life sentence for the murder of the child activist Stompie Moeketsi - claimed that Mrs Mandela had ordered him to execute Zwane on the grounds that she was secretly working for the apartheid state, a familiar leitmotif in this dark scenario, and a fabrication, according to Xoliswa Falati, an embittered former friend who was staying in Winnie's house around

the time of the murder. "It had nothing to do with politics," she told the Independent on Sunday in an exclusive interview. "Mandela hated her because she was young and beautiful."

All these charges are entirely untested but the torrent of accusations is in itself a mortification for Winnie's legendary husband and his ANC government, with implications that go far beyond a single individual's actions. There is, for a start, the apartheid state's incomprehensible reluctance to prosecute MrsMandela on some of the more notorious murder charges, details of which have been public knowledge for years. Did the government of the former president F W de Klerk lay off Winnie in the hope of concessions at the negotiating table? Was Nelson Mandela aware of the now-notorious Cebekhulu affair, in which a key witness against Winnie was spirited out of the country by ANC intelligence agents and thrown into a Zambian jail to ensure his silence? Was there a similar cover-up in 1993, when Winnie was accused of helping herself to ANC funds later lavished on her favourite toyboy, and again in 1994, when she was implicated in an illicit diamond-smuggling scheme? And finally: how does the ANC explain the fact that Winnie remains, in spite of all this, a leading member of parliament, president of the ANC Women's League and a viable contender for the party's deputy presidency?

As of the week's end there were no answers to any of these questions, possibly because criticising Mrs Mandela remains extremely awkward and potentially dangerous. In the late Eighties the liberal press ignored the Football Club's spree of rape, torture and mayhem for fear of undermining the anti-apartheid movement's heroic moral stature. Winnie's fellow leaders maintained a similar conspiracy of silence until January 1989 when she was publicly denounced for her role in the killing of Stompie Moeketsi - a case, unfortunately, of too little, too late, because most of the incidents now before the TRC had already taken place by then.

The Football Club was disbanded at this point and Winnie arrested, loudly proclaiming a frame-up by Pretoria's dirty tricks specialists. Her husband seemed to share this view. "One of the aims of this case," he told the BBC in 1991, on the eve of the Stompie trial, "is to destroy the image of comrade Winnie and myself and, through that, the organisation."

At the time the accusation seemed to hold water, but it sprang a leak in the course of the trial when the prosecution failed to introduce evidence which would have shredded Winnie's alibi; and ran entirely dry in the months that followed when it became clear that apartheid's police had lost interest in several murder cases in which the bereaved families were openly accusing Winnie of involvement. One victim was Finkie Msomi, 13, who died when Winnie's henchmen machine-gunned and firebombed her aunt's house. Another was the teenager Lolo Sono, last seen battered and bleeding in the back of Winnie's minibus after a savage interrogation on charges of spying. "The movement will decide how to deal with this dog," Winnie informed his begging parents as she drove away. It was the last they saw of him.

Siboniso Tshabalala vanished under similar circumstances. Fourteen- year-old Stompie was also deemed an informer, beaten half to death and then murdered when civic leaders began asking questions about his disappearance. Dr Abubaker Asvat, who examined the boy prior to his death and declined to participate in a cover-up, was later shot dead in an "armed robbery" in which no money was taken. One of his killers provided police with an affidavit claiming that Winnie had offered 20,000 Rand for the hit. It never saw the light of day.

This thunderhead of scandal seemed to have little impact on Winnie's political advancement. After her husband's release from prison she was redeemed from disgrace and given a seat on the ANC's National Executive, reportedly at Mr Mandela's urging. She became the ANC's shadow minister of welfare and captured the presidency of its Women's League in 1993.

Mr Mandela divorced her that year, humiliated beyond endurance by her brazen affair with a young lawyer, but she retained her stellar position in the ANC firmament, becoming Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture and Science after the 1994 elections. She was still widely regarded as a potential successor for her ex-husband, but once again managed to disgrace herself running up outrageous expenses, meddling in foreign affairs and publicly damning her own government for pandering to white interests. Dismissed from the cabinet for insubordination, she vanished from the limelight and pundits began to write her off as a spent force.

The obituaries turned out to be premature. There are many kingdoms of consciousness in South Africa but the media concentrates on only one - the westernised moonbases of the great cities, where politicians wear suits and ties, drive Ger- man cars and negotiate deals over single malt whiskies. Winnie's domain is another world - the parallel universe of animated tribal chieftains, resentful slum militants and penniless women trapped in rural hellholes. Unlike the majority of her parliamentary colleagues, who have long since moved into the formerly white suburbs to enjoy the fruits of victory, she stayed on in crime-racked Soweto, and continued to visit squatter camps that had seen little of ANC leaders since the 1994 elections and few of the blessings then promised.

People in these communities are said to remain spellbound by Mrs Mandela's charisma and her electrifying revolutionary song-and-dance routine. As the Weekly Mail put it, "the media might as well be howling in the wind" for all the impact their reports have had in such quarters. "She was the only one who stood with us," said one squatter camp resident. "She told us to be strong to achieve our ends. I find it difficult that she would have told others to kill."

Like the lady herself, Winnie's faithful find it suspicious that tumultuous ghosts should arise from the past to haunt their idol at this fateful moment, three months shy of the conference at which Nelson Mandela's line of succession will be determined. When the old man steps down in 1999 Thabo Mbeki will inherit his mantle, leaving the ANC's deputy presidency up for grabs. Winnie emerged this week as leading contender for the position, a circumstance that accounts for the nervous silence in high places. If she routs her accusers before the Truth Commission and sweeps on to victory, politicians who condemn her now will be marked men and women in years to come. If some of the flying mud sticks, on the other hand, they might yet be in trouble because it remains to be shown that rampant malfeasance is an obstacle to Winnie's holding high office in South Africa.

And this is perhaps the most damaging legacy of the marathon Football Club scandal - the perception that South Africa is a country where life is cheap, truth counts for nothing and the powerful are a law unto themselves; a racially inverted mutation of the old apartheid state, in other words, and a typical African basket-case in the making.

Winnie Mandela would never have survived as a politician in a Western country. Her career would have ended when Stompie's murder first came to light, or when she was convicted of orchestrating his kidnapping but let off with a minor fine. It would have ended again when she got caught with her fingers in the till, and when she was shown to have chartered a Lear jet to fly to Angola in the company of shady Afrikaners on a diamond- buying expedition. It would have been mortally wounded by the spectacle of brokenhearted parents begging for their children's bodies, and a stake driven through its heart by her callous betrayal of a noble old man who stood by her at grave risk to his own reputation. The fact that she has survived and even prospered in the face of such calumny indicts all of us - the press, the people and a political party once held in high esteem by the world.

That is the bad news. The good news came last week in the form of Katiza's Journey, a BBC documentary on Katiza Cebekhulu, the state witness who was spirited out of the country on the eve of Mrs Mandela's 1991 trial and imprisoned in Zambia at the ANC's behest. In the South African context, Katiza's Journey was political dynamite, a damning account of a plot in high places to defeat the ends of justice and cover up murder. Ten years ago its makers would have been arrested and deported. In 1997 the state- owned SABC gritted its teeth and broadcast the documentary in prime time. Certain passages were neutered to protect Nelson Mandela but, otherwise, this was a decision that packed flesh on to the ANC's rhetoric of democracy and open government.

Like the SABC, the Truth Commission is essentially an ANC institution, loaded with party faithful and fellow travellers who must have found it painful to take steps that threaten to destroy the reputation of one of their own icons. And yet they, too, have done their duty, summoning Winnie to take the stand in next week's preliminary hearings and account for her role in 18 "gross human rights violations", including eight murders. "Truth kills," said the poet Ted Hughes. It might finally have caught up with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Additional reporting by Nomavenda Mathiane.