For a while it seemed the game was finally up for the 'Mother of the Nation'. Then something strange happened
"This is witchcraft," said Governor Mntonga, the house painter from Malawi. It was a hot Wednesday in Johannesburg and we should have been working, but the Winnie Mandela hearings were live on TV, so we'd been glued to the set all morning. Winnie's former henchman in chief, Jerry Richardson, was on the witness stand, looking incredibly debonair in his dark suit and flashy gold ring, regaling the nation with tales of torture and murder. And then, around noon, the lights went out in the hall where the hearing was under way. I could have sworn it was just a power failure, but Governor thought otherwise. It was, he said, an indication that Winnie's powerful magic was kicking in.

Unlikely, I thought, but it was certainly a turning point. The hearings had been under way for eight days, and had hitherto been a nightmare for Mrs Madikizela-Mandela. The erstwhile "Mother of the Nation" and present- day candidate for the deputy presidency of the ruling African National Congress had been called before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to discuss the reign of terror perpetuated by the Mandela United Football Club, a loose aggregation of homeless teenagers, guerrillas and struggle fanatics who took up residence in her backyard in 1986, "the year of people's war".

Bearing nicknames such as Ninja, Killer, Scorpion and Slash, the youngsters' true function was less to play soccer than to assist Mrs Mandela's drive to render Soweto ungovernable, a noble enterprise which ultimately degenerated into a confused mess of kangaroo courts, gang-style feuds between rival factions and witch hunts for sell-outs and spies. As many as 16 people had died at the hands of the Mandela footballers, according to press reports, and several team members had landed up in prison on charges ranging from armed robbery to murder.

Now Mrs Mandela's role in all this was under consideration. Several witnesses announced that they were tired of lying to protect her, and would now tell the truth, which appeared to be hair-raising. Mrs Mandela, it was claimed, had often presided at meetings of the club's "disciplinary committee" where offenders were sentenced to torture of beatings in which she and her daughter Zinzi had participated with relish. Two assassins swore that she'd paid them to knock off a potentially troublesome doctor. Three mothers claimed she'd had their children abducted or murdered. Five eye-witnesses alleged that she'd led the assault on Stompie Seipi, the child activist famously butchered by her sidekicks in January 1989.

The climax came on day eight when former Mandela United coach Jerry Richardson admitted that it was he who had committed the foul deed and three additional murders besides, all at the behest of the woman he called mommy. "I killed Stompie on the instruction of Mrs Mandela," he cried, pointing across the hall. "She does not even visit us in prison! She used us!" Until that moment, the noose appeared to be tightening around Winnie's neck, but then the power failed, and events began to turn in her favour.

Hitherto quite jocular and cocky, Richardson suddenly seemed unnerved. "I get scared when the lights go out," he said, peering around apprehensively. They came back on moments later, but Richardson never quite regained his poise. Within minutes, he'd been forced to acknowledge that he was a police informer, an admission that atomised his credibility with black South Africans. Soon after, he began to ramble incoherently, answering in non- sequiturs. At one point, he delved into his briefcase and insisted that the commission study photographs of people who seemed to have no relevance whatsoever to the proceedings. By day's end, Richardson had become a jabbering, pathetic ruin, incapable of answering any questions at all. Things were looking up for Mrs Madikizela-Mandela.

Next morning, she showed up in a pair of rhinestone-encrusted spectacles that gave her face a strangely reptilian aspect. She looked like a turtle, heavy, slow moving, totally nerveless and inscrutable behind her tinted lenses. Her counter-attack was based on the hallucinatory premise that the Mandela United Football Club had ceased to exist at the time of its reign of terror. Her husband had ordered her to disband it in April 1987, and she had obeyed. How then could she be held to account for alleged club misdeeds that had taken place months or years later?

Lawyers pointed out that she had been filmed as late as February 1989, surrounded by youths in full Mandela United regalia. Winnie conceded that she hadn't the heart to take fancy tracksuits away from poverty-stricken working-class lads; otherwise, the point stood: there was no such thing as a football club after April 1987, and as for the disciplinary committee over which she had so arbitrarily presided, this was the first she'd heard of it. For the rest, her accusers were variously lunatic, deluded, mistaken, deranged, drunk, senile, pawns of the secret police, or victims of police brutality, forced to make accusations against her under torture. Anyone who disagreed too strongly was regally censured. "I will not tolerate you speaking to me like that! I will not!"

There was something hypnotic about these blunt denials and their steady repetition. Winnie didn't counter accusations: she annihilated them with refutations so sweeping that her questioners were left gaping, as if socked in the stomach. She had never even met several of her alleged victims, or else barely remembered them. She had no idea why the ANC's internal wing had found it necessary, in 1988, to set up a crisis committee to curb her behaviour. She had no recollection of this committee begging her to release Stompie and his three fellow captives because they had never been captives in the first place, or if they had been, it was none of her doing, because she could not - "for God's sake" - be held responsible for the actions of all the waifs and runaways who had taken shelter on her premises.

Yes, there had been a "perception" that some of them were running amok, but it had been exaggerated by the apartheid state's disinformation machine and her enemies in "the cabal", a grouping within the ANC that was supposedly out to get her. Toward the end, commissioner Yasmin Snooka put it to her that she was forcing listeners towards an improbable conclusion: "If we believe your evidence, everyone else is lying." Winnie smiled. "Yes," she said. "It's true."

Appearances to the contrary, Ms Snooka could not have been surprised, because all this was a replay of a closed-door hearing five weeks earlier, where Winnie had countered all charges with similar blanket denials. Why was the Truth Commission allowing her to get away with it? Because the Truth Commission is a sweet and somewhat muddle-headed organism, cast very much in the mould of its chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The kindly and forgiving Anglican has been reluctant to use the sword the law has placed in his hands - a pity, since the TRC's most striking successes have resulted from the infliction of terror. Such cases have invariably involved white security policemen and months of rigorous investigation by TRC staff, who have sought out new witnesses and smashed alibis, ultimately forcing the guilty parties to confess rather than face the dreadful certainty of life imprisonment.

No similar efforts seemed to have been made in Winnie's case. The various Ninjas and Killers who once lived in her garden remained names on yellowing police statements. No new evidence was brought forth to break your-word- versus-mine deadlocks of many years' standing. Indications that Winnie had perjured herself in her 1991 Stompie trial were allowed to go unpunished and alarming allegations of witness intimidation went largely unexamined.

Consider the case of Mike Seakamela, whose testimony might have wiped the smirk off Mrs Madikizela-Mandela's face if he'd showed up to testify as scheduled. Once a driver in Winnie's employ, Seakamela is possibly the only source capable of verifying a story provided to the TRC by Nicodemus Sono. A plump office-worker in his early fifties, Nicodemus once had a son named Lolo, and a nephew named Tebogo, who left the country to undergo military training. When Tebogo returned to Soweto in 1988, carrying a bag of hand grenades and an AK-47 assault rifle, 16-year-old Lolo became his courier, scuttling back and forth between Tebogo and Winnie Mandela, a fellow operative in the ANC's underground army.

ON 9 November 1988, Tebogo was betrayed, and he and a comrade died in a fusillade of police bullets. It emerged this week that the real traitor was Winnie's confidant, Jerry Richardson, but at the time, Lolo Sono was the prime suspect. He and a friend were allegedly picked up and subjected to a savage interrogation by Winnie's henchmen. Later that night, a powder- blue microbus turned up outside the Sono home. Nicodemus Sono was called outside. He saw his son sitting in the back of the vehicle, bloodied and shivering. He begged Winnie to let the boy go, but she refused. "The movement will decide what to do with this dog," she said as the microbus pulled away. It was the last anyone saw of Lolo Sono.

His father has been telling this story for years, and Winnie has always dismissed it as a fantasy, imputing that the boy had fallen foul of the security police and had been blown up along the border. The only man capable of breaking the deadlock was Mike Seakamela, who was in the blue microbus on the night of Lolo's disappearance and who provided critical corroboration of the father's evidence. Mike made a statement to the police in 1988, but they failed to act on it. He repeated his contention in 1995, but the second statement vanished, along with the original case file. He informed the Truth Commission that he was willing to testify this week, but when the day came, he failed to show. Lawyers said he'd received a visit from Winnie and gone into hiding. Winnie denied this along with everything else, and there the matter ended.

In the hearing's closing moments, Archbishop Tutu was reduced to begging for a display of remorse from the obdurate figure on the witness stand. "You are an icon," he told Winnie, "a stalwart of the liberation struggle. You have no idea how your greatness will be enhanced if you said, 'Sorry, things went horribly horribly wrong.' Please" he concluded, almost sobbing. "I beg you. I beg you. I beg you."

Winnie shot a glance at her lawyer, who nodded. Then she turned back to Tutu, smiled condescendingly, and tossed him a crumb or two. "It's true that things went horribly wrong," she said, pausing before adding a critical rider: "...when we were away. For that I am deeply sorry." She appended a murmur of compassion for the bereaved next of kin, and that was the end of that. The hearing was over, and Winnie had somehow emerged largely unscathed. Pundits were left scratching their heads. Governor Mntonga said, told you so.