SPECULATION BEGAN about the roles of such controversial figures as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Mangosuthu Buthelezi in the future South African government, as confusion deepened yesterday about the result of last Wednesday's election.

With nearly 15 of the 16 million votes cast counted by mid-morning yesterday, the African National Congress had secured a two-thirds majority - and a nail-biting battle for second place was under way between the white- led Democratic Party (DP) and Chief Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

But the vote-counting process was thrown into doubt late on Friday when seven political parties demanded to see hard copies of results from all 14,650 polling stations. The parties, including the DP and IFP, claimed that at least one polling station had recorded a 300 per cent turnout.

The election marked the retirement of President Nelson Mandela and the handover, on 16 June, to Thabo Mbeki, currently president of the ruling party. The verification of all the votes cast will not be complete until later this week and will, crucially, reveal whether the DP or the IFP occupies the role of head of the opposition.

The DP's leader, Tony Leon, has painted himself as future opposition leader in the wake of the political demise of the New National Party. The DP yesterday stood on 9.79 per cent against the NNP's 7 per cent. The NNP's humiliation was completed by the announcement that the ANC had overtaken it in its Western Cape provincial stronghold.

However, it still was not clear whether, nationally, the DP would be overtaken for the coveted opposition role by the IFP, on 8.34 per cent yesterday.

Chief Buthelezi is currently minister of home affairs and, as part of recent peace talks between the government and the IFP, has been tipped as a future second deputy president of the country.

If the IFP overtakes the DP and Chief Buthelezi accepts a government role, the main opposition party will be pro-government on many issues.

Such a situation could also be a headache for Mr Mbeki. The IFP, which is currently slightly ahead of the ANC in its KwaZulu-Natal heartland, is in favour of devolving power to the provinces. Mr Mbeki has signalled that, in an effort to end corruption in the provinces, he wishes to centralise many decisions.

Even though there is much mischievous speculation that the ex-wife of President Mandela will be rewarded for her campaign work with a cabinet post, that is unlikely.

Mrs Madikizela-Mandela, whose brief stint in the ANC government ended in a financial scandal and who has a conviction for kidnapping and assault, has recently stated that she is not interested in a ministerial position. The ANC women's league, which she heads is, however, expected to be given an enhanced role by Mr Mbeki.