Mrs Mandela's estranged husband, President Nelson Mandela, was forced to step into a key dispute, meeting 11 women who had resigned from the influential Women's League of the African National Congress, that she heads.
The normally patient and forgiving President Mandela was said by South African media to have been enraged by Mrs Mandela's criticism of the government during a funeral on 5 February for a black policeman shot by a white riot unit.
According to Johannesburg's Sunday Times, Mr Mandela ordered his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, to give her an ultimatum either to resign her post as deputy minister for arts and culture or retract her comments. She had told a Soweto crowd that the new regime had failed to correct the imbalances of apartheid and called on ANC leaders to demonstrate whether "we are in power or just in government".
Such criticism cuts deep. Mrs Mandela, 59, and her radical allies are still popular among township militants who feel that change has been too slow under the ANC-led government of national unity which took power in May.
Mr Mandela has yet to get over their separation in 1992 after allegations of an affair. Mrs Mandela was convicted of kidnapping in 1991 after her bodyguards killed a young activist, Stompie Seipei, in 1989.
Those who resigned from the Women's League include Adelaide Tambo, the wife of the late ANC leader-in-exile, Oliver Tambo. The 11 said they resigned because of undemocratic decision-making and lack of accountability.
Mrs Tambo said she was upset that Winnie Mandela had not even consulted her as Women's League treasurer about a joint tourism venture with Omar Sharif, called the Road to Freedom Company. The actor arrived in South Africa last week to finalise plans for tours to the shrines of the struggle against apartheid. He and the Women's League were to split the profits.
"I don't know anything about this Road to Freedom," Mrs Tambo said.
The scandal could not have come at a worse time for the ANC, which is still reeling over allegations that Cape Town's veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Allan Boesak, enriched himself at the expense of Scandinavian governments and the proceeds of Paul Simon's Graceland tour.
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