South Africa: ANC attacks Winnie Mandela as 'a liar and a charlatan'

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Winnie Mandela is today brandished a liar and a charlatan in an attack by a minister which betrays the ANC leadership's anxiety over her attempt to become deputy president of the party.

In what appears to be the start of a high-risk leadership strategy against President Nelson Mandela's discredited ex-wife, Steve Tshwete, Minister for Sport, paints Mrs Mandela as a craven, ambitious opportunist whose populist election campaign aims to exploit the population's "baser feelings".

The broadside by Mr Tshwete, an associate of Thabo Mbeki, President Nelson Mandela's heir-apparent, appears in today's Johannesburg Star as a "rebuttal" to an interview with Mrs Mandela on Monday in the same paper. In it she claimed a "high-handed" ANC had failed to deliver to the masses. She called for restoration of the death penalty, labelled the ANC as being soft on crime and cast aspersions on the judgement of the President.

Mrs Mandela is apparently unabashed by allegations linking her with eight murders. Four days before a special public hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which will examine the claims, she insists she is the innocent victim of a political conspiracy.

Any sweet innocence escapes Mr Tshwete, who today rounds on Mrs Mandela for her attack on her former husband, whom she was unfaithful to after his release from prison. He thunders: "For her to try to denigrate ... the President after the terrible pain she has caused him not only smacks of insensitivity but also serves the campaign of those who want to undermine social transformation by questioning the integrity of the most senior leadership of the ANC."

Mrs Mandela's bid for office, which puts her within striking distance of the presidency of South Africa, will come as Mr Mandela steps down as party leader, though he remains president of the country until next year. In an appeal to ANC rank and file, Mr Tshwete asks that the grassroots not be dazzled by the rhetoric of Mrs Mandela, whom he sarcastically refers to as "self-appointed spokesperson of the poor". He warns the disillusioned - Mrs Mandela's target constituency - that the government faces a harder task creating a truly democratic South Africa than it did as a revolutionary force.

Mrs Mandela, he writes, is doing nothing to help. "The more I try to recall Winnie's contribution to debate in the ANC the more I draw a blank ... Check minutes of Cabinet committees which she used to attend and you will not find a single substantive contribution from her ... In formal meetings where policy is thrashed out her contribution is silence, silence and more silence."

The ANC reserves this sort of treatment for the rare members it occasionally casts into the political wilderness, not for prominent members who sit on the NEC and lead the ANC Women's League. Mr Tshwete suggests Mrs Mandela is paranoid and attention-seeking.

He adds that her campaign is stamped with "the political waywardness of a charlatan who is at her best element whenever she has identified an enemy to be fought within the ANC." The article will spark speculation about who is really behind it. Some will trace it to the office of Mr Mandela or Deputy President Mbeki. The leadership must surely be nervous that its strategy will backfire: Mrs Mandela's grassroots support is believed to be substantial and leadership attempts to influence the choices of its rank and file are not always successful. There is already internal unrest, because all other ANC deputy presidential candidates have been forced to step aside in favour of the uncharismatic "consensus candidate" Jacob Zuma, turning the contest into a two-horse race.

With less than a month to the ANC annual conference, at which the elections will be held, Mrs Mandela is counting on a disobedient rank and file. The business community is forecasting a huge outflow of foreign investment should the former "Mother of the Nation" win high office. As Mr Tshwete acknowledges, the "stakes are very high".