Return of the wicked `Queen of all Africans'

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MILLIONS OF South Africans queued for hours to cast their votes yesterday, but not Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Surrounded by bodyguards, aides and reporters, the "Queen of all Africans" strode out of her Soweto mansion, past long lines of patient would-be voters and right into the polling station at Phefeni primary school. She then had to wait for half an hour until she could cast her vote.

Emerging into the sunlight, her finger marked with the obligatory indelible ink to stop her going round again, Nelson Mandela's former wife was in a rare confiding mood. "I am embarrassed to admit this," she said, "but with all the excitement I forgot to bring my ID."

It must have been an easy mistake for her to make: in normal circumstances proof of identity for Mrs Madikizela-Mandela would be about as redundant as a 50p piece in the Queen's handbag. Despite her fall from grace in the wake of the 1988 Stompie Seipei murder, from which she escaped with a suspended sentence for kidnap, the woman who once personified the defiant struggle against apartheid remains one of the most recognisable people on the planet.

For all the gruesome tales attached to her name, many ordinary black South Africans that recognition still translates into affection, even love. Last Sunday her mere appearance at an African National Congress election rally near Soweto triggered a standing ovation and chants of "Mama", the name by which she is popularly known.

There are signs that her ex-husband's political heir, Thabo Mbeki, may be planning to rehabilitate her politically after Nelson Mandela stands down. There has been talk of a new role for Comrade Winnie - perhaps an upgrading of the power and status of the Women's League, which she chairs, perhaps even a ministry.

Never a team player, in recent weeks Mrs Madikizela-Mandela has been the single most energetic figure on the ANC's election campaign, travelling South Africa to preach to her constituency among the poorer rural and urban blacks or using her Pondo royal blood to bring disgruntled chiefs in the Eastern Cape back into the ANC fold. But journalists hoping for a few of her famously spicy soundbites have usually gone away disappointed.

"I don't think anybody could wave a magic wand and deal with South Africa's problems overnight," she said during a visit to the fetid RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) squatter camp near Pretoria, ironically named after the government's now-abandoned 1994 scheme to uplift the black majority.

"What we need to do is to tell our people that we can't bring transformation as quickly as we'd like to, and tell them that we need more time and we need them to be patient."

Coming from Mrs Madikizela-Mandela (as she has styled herself since her 1996 divorce from Nelson) this talk of patience sounds almost shocking. After all, in 1995 Mrs Mandela was sacked from her post as junior minister of arts, science and culture for consistently ignoring party discipline and policies, and in particular for accusing her own government of ignoring poor Africans and being too soft on the whites.

Many of her erstwhile colleagues in government, battling with the dire economic and social legacies of apartheid, complained that it was Winnie herself who had called longest and loudest for somebody to wave a magic wand and put everything right.

In the past her radical rhetoric has isolated her from the ANC's political mainstream at least as much as the "disappearance" of pounds 80,000 of party welfare funds from under her control in 1992, her adultery with a lawyer after her husband's release from prison, or her role in the 1988 abduction, torture and death of the 14-year-old activist Stompie Seipei.

Many thought the final nail in her coffin came last year when Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) concluded that she was aware of and in some cases probably participated in a series of murders, abductions, disappearances and assaults committed by "Mandela United Football Club", a gang of thugs who lived at her Soweto home in the late 1980s.

A year earlier, at public hearings held by the TRC in Johannesburg, she had sat silently before the television cameras while witnesses accused her of participating in the savage beating of Stompie Seipei, whom she accused of having sexual relations with a white Methodist priest. The alibi which had got her off murder and assault charges in 1992 (she eventually received a suspended sentence for kidnapping) was left in tatters.

She was equally unmoved as Nicodemus Sono, himself a respected ANC activist in Soweto, tearfully testified that Mrs Madikizela-Mandela had refused his pleas for her to release his teenage son whom she had accused - wrongly - of informing to the police. He had last seen his son Lolo in November 1988, terrified and badly beaten, driving off with Mrs Madikizela-Mandela and her thugs in a minibus donated by the German government.

Yet within the ANC none of this seemed to damage her nearly as much as her indiscipline and disrespect of her husband.

Suspicions that she might be welcomed back into the foldafter his retirement hardened six weeks ago when Mr Mbeki defended her inclusion in ninth place on the ANC's list for parliament's 400 seats.

"There has never been any doubt within the ANC that these actions, for example the Stompie Seipei case, were of a political nature," he said.

"Winnie has been unfairly crucified for things done within the political atmosphere of the time. I am prepared to stand by her and against anybody calling for her removal from our election list."

Mrs Madikizela-Mandela has responded to Mr Mbeki's attempted vindication of her by praising him as a radical Africanist leader after her own heart.

"Thabo Mbeki is a no-nonsense man," she told reporters at the polling station yesterday. "It's time to get down to business. The picnic is over for all those who took advantage of an elderly statesman and abused his friendship and abused the process of reconciliation to profit themselves."

Did she think there would be a place for her in government? "I am actually exhausted by that particular question," she replied sweetly. "I think by now everybody knows that was never my ambition. I just want to serve the people."

Observers believe Mr Mbeki, a former exile who lacks credentials from the mass struggle era, may be seeking to borrow some of Mrs Madikizela- Mandela's glory while at the same time keeping his party's most dangerous radical on-side.

"Mbeki is a deal-maker," says Stephen Friedman, director of Johannesburg's independent Centre for Policy Studies. "He comes from the idea of keeping the movement together, as does Nelson Mandela to an extent. Mandela tries to do it through charisma and so on, and Mbeki tries to do it through deals."

Bringing Mrs Madikizela-Mandela back to government would fit in with Mr Mbeki's desire to contain open dissent within the loosely-knit ANC movement. It would, however, accord less well with his equally strong desire to send a positive image of South Africa to business at home and abroad.

To most white South Africans Mrs Madikizela-Mandela's image was fatally tarnished by the Stompie Seipei affair. They remember her calls for suspected apartheid collaborators to be burnt alive with the "necklace" method - a petrol-soaked tyre is placed around the victim's head and set alight - and her one-time fondness slogan "one settler one bullet".

Some observers also wonder whether Mrs Madikizela-Mandela really is worth pandering to. While many blacks may have affection for the "Mother of the Nation", that does not translate into strong or reasoned political support.