It will take more than adultery and dubious property speculation to ruin the careers of parliamentarians in the new South Africa. The evidence suggests that a history of such behaviour might even provide a leg up the political ladder.

Take Winnie Mandela. Not only did she cuckold her venerable husband, persisting with an affair two years after his release from prison, she also bore responsibility for the illicit appropriation of 400,000 Rand (pounds 80,000) from the African National Congress Department of Health and Social Welfare. And, of course, there was the matter of the child-kidnapping conviction.

But none of this stopped the ANC from confirming on Friday that she was on the list of candidates guaranteed a seat in parliament after South Africa holds its first democratic elections on 27 April. She will not, as some commentators have suggested, obtain a cabinet post in the new government. She is not high enough on the electoral list for that, nor is the ANC leadership so perverse as to give her control of any state budgets - not yet, at any rate. But Mrs Mandela will be in parliament and no one is underestimating her capacity to bounce higher.

South Africa's Evita is well and truly back.

You might have thought the obstacles she faced would stop her. Take, for example, the publication in the Johannesburg Sunday Times in September 1992 of a letter she had written to her lover six months earlier. The letter was dated 17 March 1992 and addressed to Dali Mpofu, one of her lawyers in the trial in which she was convicted of the assault and kidnapping of 14-year-old 'Stompie' Moeketsi Seipei and three others. Mpofu was also her deputy in the ANC's welfare department. The letter confirmed long-standing suspicions both about their affair and the whereabouts of missing ANC funds.

Mrs Mandela, who was 56 at the time, accused Mpofu, who was 30, of having affairs with other women. 'You're running around fucking at the slightest emotional excuse,' she wrote. 'The fact that I haven't been speaking to Tata (Nelson Mandela) for five months now over you is no longer your concern. I keep telling you the situation is deteriorating at home, you are not bothered because you are satisfying yourself every night with a woman. I won't be your bloody fool, Dali.'

Later in the letter she berated Mr Mpofu for his lack of concern at the jam both found themselves in following the disappearance of cash from the welfare department account. One month after that letter was written Nelson Mandela announced his separation from his wife and, under intense pressure, she resigned from her job as ANC head of welfare. Mr Mpofu was sacked. A few weeks later the ANC announced an investigation into alleged fraud involving R400,000 during the time Mrs Mandela and Mr Mpofu had been running the department. Shortly thereafter she was suspended from the ANC Women's League and stripped of all her ANC titles.

Mrs Mandela's world had collapsed. Giggling secretaries at ANC headquarters no longer called her the 'mother' but the 'mugger' of the nation.

The mystery then, as now, was how she ever managed to get as far as she did. Barely 18 months after the Stompie incident, which occurred in December 1988, and all the other abominations practised by her bodyguards in the so-called Mandela Football Club during the two preceding years, the ANC leadership blindly went ahead and appointed her to the social welfare job. It is not as if the ANC did not know what had been going on. After Stompie's murder, which was carried out by 'football club' coach Jerry Richardson, senior figures in the black liberation movement conducted an investigation into Mrs Mandela's activities. The Mass Democratic Movement issued a statement in March 1989 denouncing the reign of terror of Mrs Mandela's boys in Soweto and, in effect, finding her guilty of Stompie's murder. The investigating committee learnt a great deal more but never revealed its findings.

Then, in September 1990, a joint investigation by the Independent and the BBC linked Mrs Mandela's football club associates to 16 murders: allegations published and broadcast in South Africa and never denied.

And then there was the story of Lolo Sono, a young man of 21 who Mrs Mandela believed, quite irrationally, to be a police informer.

On 13 November 1988, six weeks before Stompie's abduction, Lolo Sono's father, Nico, saw that Mrs Mandela's minibus had pulled up outside his home. He went outside and saw his son lying in the back of the vehicle, battered and bleeding. He remonstrated with Mrs Mandela, who was in the passenger seat, imploring her to let his son go. 'No,' she said, 'he's a sell-out,' and drove off. Lolo has never been seen again.

Another mystery concerns Katiza Chebekhulu, who should have appeared in court as one of Mrs Mandela's co-accused when her trial began in January 1991. Instead he was abducted by ANC sympathisers and spirited to Zambia. The fear was that he would undermine Mrs Mandela's case. Mr Chebekhulu had spoken to the Independent three months earlier. In the course of a three-hour taped interview, he said he had witnessed the beatings of Stompie and his friends. He said that Mrs Mandela was present and had threatened to beat him if he did not join in.

Initially the ANC kept Mr Chebekhulu in a hotel in the Zambian capital, Lusaka. But after he spoke out against Mrs Mandela in the Zambian Daily Mail, ANC officials arranged with the Zambian authorities to lock him in jail. Inexplicably, he has remained there ever since.

It was not until a year after the trial ended, in April 1992, that Nelson Mandela shed the role of the besotted husband and, his eyes finally opened by senior colleagues in the ANC, announced that the marriage was over. Since then they have been seen in public only a handful of times, and never by mutual arrangement. His feelings towards her became clear when, at a party last year to celebrate his 75th birthday, 650 guests were invited and she was not one of them.

Mrs Mandela, refusing to accept that her political career was over, started plotting her come-back strategy. This consisted, first, of doing what few national ANC figures did and visiting South Africa's poorest communities, setting the squatter camps alight with her hardline, populist rhetoric. The second part of her strategy was to make a nuisance of herself to the ANC establishment. Early in 1993 she caused an uproar when she wrote a newspaper article accusing ANC leaders, her husband included, of selling out in negotiations with the government in their zeal, as she put it, to wrap themselves in 'the silken sheets' of power. 'Who on earth is she,' retorted a senior ANC negotiator, 'to be speaking about silken sheets?'

It was a fair question. After her fall from grace, Mrs Mandela continued to drive a Mercedes-Benz and, after her husband moved out, to live alone in a vast mansion known ironically in Soweto as 'the parliament'. In 1991 she travelled to London with Dali Mpofu, from there by Concorde to New York, and then on to Los Angeles, where they stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel, consorted with Hollywood stars and travelled everywhere by limousine.

Yet she still remains the darling of the oppressed, the more so the farther away you go from Soweto. She has fared badly in regional ANC elections in the greater Johannesburg area, where people tend to be well informed about her. But when ANC members nationwide were asked in December to submit their nominations for candidates to parliament (the elections will be conducted on the basis of proportional representation), she came fifth in order of preference. Ten days ago an electoral college had the wisdom to reduce her to 31st place in the final list.

But that in itself remains a remarkable achievement. The secret of her success is, in the end, very simple: she remains a famous name. That and the persistence of the belief among the masses in the far-flung corners of the republic that the stories told about her are all part of a state smear campaign.

A question remains, however, as to why she was allowed to stand for nomination in the first place, since ANC rules specify that anyone convicted of a non-political crime is ineligible. ANC officials have so far been unable to provide an explanation.

The truth appears to be that Winnie inspires a curious sort of helplessness in the otherwise struggle-hardened men and women who lead the South African liberation movement. In her presence those who loathe her, and there are many, become paralysed. Those who are charmed by her are willing to turn a blind eye to her abuses. The lady, undoubtedly, has chutzpah. That this is a quality sadly lacking in her comrades poses questions the ANC's political opponents are licking their chops to ask during the coming election campaign; questions, for example, on the nature of the incoming ANC government and its promises to sweep South Africa with a new moral broom.

(Photograph omitted)