Winnie Mandela: The Mother of the Nation or a murderous bully?

For decades, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was the defiant public face of South Africa's liberation movement. But a hearing today into alleged gross human rights abuses will present a very different picture, Mary Braid reports.

Allegations before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) cast Winnie Mandela, 64, as a violent, erratic and murderous bully who, during the late 1980s, with her notorious bodyguards - the Mandela United Football Club - terrorised Soweto, beating up, firebombing and summarily killing "spies".

Ms Mandela is being linked to 18 human-rights violations, including eight murders. Although the TRC refuses to confirm the number and nature of the claims, acres of newspaper space are being devoted to the testimony of her alleged victims and their families.

Nothing now seems too outlandish a claim; if she was accused of boiling and eating babies, eyebrows would hardly be raised. As well as killing "spies", it is claimed she ordered the murder of Abu Baker Asvat, a Soweto doctor, because he refused to cover up her murder of Stompie Seipei Moketsi, 14, and that she had a young woman murdered because she was pregnant by a man with whom Ms Mandela was infatuated.

Many of the accusations are being made by former associates of dubious character seeking amnesty from the TRC, the body charged with uncovering the atrocities of the apartheid era, in exchange for full confessions.

But there is also compelling testimony from the parents of missing youngsters who portray Ms Mandela as a township Angel of Death. Nichodemus and Caroline Sono have claimed that Ms Mandela brought their son Lolo home beaten and bleeding in the back of a van. When they begged for his life they say she said the "dog" would be dealt with. He was never seen again.

Ms Mandela's subpoena from the TRC has left the African National Congress in crisis. Bantu Holomisa, an expelled ANC minister and Ms Mandela's close friend, claims the subpoena is part of an ANC plot to discredit her before December; she is front-runner for election as the party's deputy president. But the party's position is probably far more complicated. It is no secret that the leadership is appalled at the notion of President Mandela's unpredictable ex-wife as deputy leader of the party. But the ANC cannot be seen to be obstructing the TRC.

While opinion varies on her chances of election, the position of deputy president would put her within striking distance of the presidency. The business community predicts money will flood out of the country if she is elected in December.

The current allegations would be enough to end the career of most politicians but South Africa's recent history and Ms Mandela's huge grassroots appeal makes a disgraced departure rather unlikely. In a career in which she has enjoyed more comebacks than Frank Sinatra, she has proved the consummate survivor. Her grass roots support - her constituents are in Phola Park's squatter camps - will remain true.

Some commentators argue that the ANC is reaping what it sowed and that Ms Mandela should have been ostracised long ago. But the party stuck by her then and is - publicly at least - sticking by her now. Today an ANC legal team will accompany her to the TRC at which her lawyers will ask for a postponement of the hearing.

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