How much truth does it take, Winnie?

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The Independent Online
It was a blistering attack, and it came from the pulpit. When it ended, a couple of breathtaking, passionate hours later, it seemed that the remains of Winnie Mandela's credibility had been blown away. Mary Braid reports.

Apartheid, said Bishop Peter Storey, South Africa's leading Methodist priest, had been South Africa's "primary cancer". But, with Mrs Madikizela- Mandela sitting just feet away, he argued that "secondary infections" had set in, eroding some people's sense of good and evil.

Moral collapse was at the centre of the 1988 murder of Stompie Seipei Moeketsi, 14, the township activist Mrs Mandela was found guilty of kidnapping. "It's possible," he warned the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, "to become like those that we hate most."

He did not name Mrs Mandela, who was convicted of the kidnapping in 1992, but not of the killing. Yesterday, however, everyone at the hearing knew who the bishop believed had fallen from grace. The murder of Stompie, he said, was about more than the killing of a child. "It is about the ruthless abuse of power, and it resembles much too closely the abuses of the apartheid system itself." He said that truth was too often "trimmed to political winds or suppressed because people have vanished or feared for their lives", but he hoped it would finally prevail.

Mrs Mandela, standing for deputy leadership of the ANC next month, against the wishes of the leadership, sat stonyfaced. But the bishop's searing indictment drifted from the hall towards the Johannesburg headquarters of the ANC, a few miles away. For he also condemned the ANC for trying to cover up Mrs Mandela's guilt. An ANC Crisis Committee, he said, had been primarily interested in damage limitation.

Some activists had been brave enough to distance themselves from Mrs Mandela. "If only other members of the movement had had the courage that they had we would not be sitting here today," said Bishop Storey. The TRC, which must expose the atrocities of the apartheid era, has heard that Stompie - and three older youths - were abducted from the Soweto manse of the Rev Paul Verryn (now a Methodist bishop), where they had saught sanctuary from the security police. They were taken by the notorious Mandela United Football Club, Mrs Mandela's personal bodyguard which terrorised Soweto.

Mrs Mandela claimed Mr Verryn was sexually abusing the boys and that Stompie was a police informer. This week, the boys said Mrs Mandela threatened they would die if they did not make false allegations against the minister. After their abduction they were beaten for three days. When they were finally released two weeks later, Stompie was missing. He was later found on wasteland with his throat slit.

Yesterday Bishop Storey described how the church and the community tried to persuade Mrs Mandela to let the boys go. Every effort was "stonewalled".

For the first time Bishop Storey released contemporaneous notes of a message he sent to Mandela. Stanley Mogoba, then the head of the Methodist Church, reported back the future president's response. Even the short notes made by Bishop Storey after he was debriefed by Mr Mogoba betray the sadness of the encounter. After Mr Mogoba explained Mrs Mandela's rejection of mediation, Mr Mandela conceded that the "fault is hers" and apologised for an "ugly situation."

In what, with hindsight, was a turning point in his relationship with the woman who had kept the struggle and his hopes alive, Mandela asked Mr Mogoba whether he should advise his wife to call a press conference, make a public apology and seek forgiveness. The Bishop replied that might already be too late. Eight years on Mrs Mandela has yet to apologize or request forgiveness. She still denies taking part in his assault or murder.

Yesterday Stompie's mother Joyce listened as the Rev Paul Verryn (now a bishop), the Sowetan priest Mrs Mandela almost ruined with false allegations, offered her another chance. Just seconds before he had broken down during a public apology to Mrs Seipei, who says all she wants is for Winnie to tell her what happened to her son. Bishop Verryn said he felt he had not taken threats against Stompie seriously enough. "Had I acted in another way he could be safe and with us now," he said through tears.

He then turned and gazed at an uncomfortable-looking Mrs Mandela. "I have been profoundly hurt by the things you have accused me off," he said. "I forgive you even if you do not want it, or do not think I deserve to give it."

Mrs Mandela had surely had enough priests. But then Archbishop Desmond Tutu, TRC chairman, asked her if she wanted to make any public response to Mr Verryn in the spirit of reconciliation. She declined, saying through her lawyer that she preferred to "communicate" in private.