The 62-year-old "mother of the nation'' never made it to first lady of South Africa, but only she can rescue the ANC in a region the urban-based party has neglected almost as badly as did the old apartheid regime. If she succeeds in wooing local chiefs, her political rehabilitation is guaranteed after the 2 June elections. The chiefs hold far more sway here than Nelson Mandela or the incoming president, Thabo Mbeki, who were born here.
During a stop in her campaigning - a breakneck race around mountain roads that reveals surprised livestock at every turn - Comrade Winnie, as she is called, insisted she was not interested in a cabinet post. "Such positions are meaningless to me and I'm not being vain. I think I have played my role in this country and I am quite happy with who I am and where I am,'' she said. However, it is believed that President Mbeki will give her an influential position, if not a cabinet seat.
The ANC, which has governed South African since the first multi-race elections in May 1994, is expected to win up to two-thirds of the vote. Mr Mbeki will succeed President Nelson Mandela on 16 June. But the provincial elections two weeks earlier will be another story. It is in that ballot that 18 million voters will express their disappointment at the slow pace of change and corrupt provincial ANC politicians who have lined their pockets with central government money intended to help ordinary people.
The Transkei, part of the Eastern Cape province, could be lost to Bantu Holomisa, the former homeland's military leader and a scion of the local Thembu royal family. He set up the United Democratic Movement two years ago, after he was thrown out of the ANC.
A defeat in Transkei would be an enormous humiliation to the ANC, which has the peasant villages of this rolling landscape and its gigantic skies to thank for Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Winnie Madikizela- Mandela.
But the ANC, by Mr Mbeki's own admission, has lost touch with its roots. At an election meeting in Umtata on Thursday he said: "One of the areas we have neglected is rural development. For many decades the ANC became urban-based. It is relatively insensitive to rural questions."
The 2.5 million voters of the Eastern Cape mostly agree. Pauperisation arrived here under apartheid. But it has continued under the ANC, which sacked the hopeless Transkei civil service and its army but did not do much to create an environment conducive to new jobs. Unemployment is soaring and everyone talks of unbuilt houses and taps with no water because of corruption.
Comrade Winnie, the ANC believes, can make a difference. She is indefatigable as she travels around remote villages and has the "common touch'' that Mr Mbeki clearly lost during his days at Lovedale College and Sussex University. On Thursday, in his ancestral village of Nyili, Mr Mbeki looked uncomfortable when the elders slaughtered a goat for him and brewed sorghum beer.
In her trademark cap and Gucci glasses, Comrade Winnie has no such problems connecting with the people and puts to work her amazing magnetism. Despite her divorce from President Mandela and her conviction for the abduction and assault of a township boy, she is still the idol of millions of poor blacks. In Flagstaff, high up in the mountain with one tar road, she told villagers on Thursday: "The picnic is over. It is time that the ANC rolls up its sleeves and gets down to work. We are aware of our weaknesses... but only the ANC can deliver the electricity and water.''
As if preparing for a central role in the next government, she gave Mr Mbeki her full backing. "We have great confidence in Thabo Mbeki... That is why we are criss-crossing the country. We want to give him the biggest win ever so he can carry out our policies."
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