Winnie hides behind a brave face to confront her accusers

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Winnie Mandela is blamed for eight murders and 10 other abductions and assaults. Mary Braid watched her first day before her detractors

In the end, Ms Mandela's entourage was disappointingly small, defying the expectations that her followers among South Africa's poorest would turn up en masse. The expected show of township support did not materialise at the Johannesburg headquarters of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to back her demands that the 18 murder, assault and abduction allegations against her be heard in public. And despite the African National Congress's public show of support for President Nelson Mandela's former wife in recent weeks, no senior party members were present.

In spite of the gravity of the charges, Ms Mandela, wearing pearls and a white suit, looked anything but forlorn. She stands accused of ordering the murder of younger love rivals in fits of jealousy, and personally stabbing to death a teenage activist during a reign of terror in Soweto in the late 1980s.

Ms Mandela's lawyer complained that the TRC was less than sensitive in subpoenaing her on her 64th birthday, and against all expectations demanded that the pre-hearing investigations into the charges against her be heard in public, not in camera. "Our client's intention is once and for all to have these matters buried," Ismail Semenya said.

He did not request a postponement, which had been expected, but complained instead that his client had not been provided with all the documents relating to the charges against her and that the confidentiality of the case had been breached.

The commission, however, which is charged with investigating the atrocities of the apartheid era, refused to deviate from the laws that govern its work.

Investigations take place in private to give those implicated by evidence time to seek legal representation before public hearings. The only concession was that she would be guaranteed a public hearing later, even if the investigators were convinced by her answers.

Ms Mandela may have scored on strategy yesterday. Many of her opponents had believed that the last thing she really wanted was for the lurid details of the cases to be heard in public. The charges, leaked to the press, have dominated the media for weeks. Public hearings would bring another feeding frenzy.

The commission fixed the public hearing for 24 November, two weeks before the ANC conference at which Ms Mandela will launch her attempt to become the party's deputy president, to the dismay of its leadership.

A public hearing then will either make or break her.