`Winnie, the arch-manipulator, reduced South Africa's time for healing to little more than a cheap gameshow'

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The Independent Online
South Africa and the world hoped Desmond Tutu's commission would reach the truth about Winnie Mandela this week. Instead, writes Mary Braid, the archbishop engineered an act of sugary theatre.

In a decade of reporting, no single moment has made me as furious as the plastic "reconciliation" manufactured on Thursday between Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Joyce Seipei, the mother of Stompie Moeketsi, 14, one of her alleged victims.

The embrace between the women will be notched up as an eternal shame to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the brave and dangerous experiment in nation-building it is currently spearheading.

That Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC chairman, actually halted crucial cross-examination of Mrs Mandela over her alleged involvement in Stompie's murder for the fake event to take place still seems unbelievable.

The truth and reconciliation theory runs something like this. South Africans are bitterly divided by their racist past. Whites, in general, lived safe and comfortable lives, ignorant or indifferent to the brutal injustice meted out to blacks. Through the TRC it is hoped a new and healthy nation can be built by confronting South Africans with the truth about their past. Only through truth, the theory goes, is forgiveness and reconciliation possible.

South Africa's attempts to heal itself are slow, arduous and painful, with no guarantee of success. The experiment is being closely watched by a world in which wholesale human rights abuse is all too common and mechanisms for dealing with it few.

That is what makes Thursday's Teletubby-style reconciliation so galling. It is still difficult to decide whether I'm more angry with the TRC, for being used, or Mrs Mandela, for using it.

For eight days Mrs Mandela had listened to allegations that she and her notorious Mandela United Football Club were involved in the late 1980s in at least six murders and many serious assaults.

It became obvious during the hearings that most of the charges against her would not stand up in a court; the witnesses closest to the violence were simply too flaky, criminal or discredited. But some credible witnesses did emerge, particularly from the families of victims allegedly murdered on Mrs Mandela's orders.

The hearings also produced a largely consistent and extremely ugly picture of Mrs Mandela and her "boys". Few can really still doubt that the Mother of the Nation was by the late 1980s a violent, unpredictable despot, totally unaccountable to her community and the liberation movement.

That alone matters when Mrs Mandela is just two weeks from seeking high office in the ANC; which would be a springboard to the presidency.

For some, of course, race is the only concern. Mrs Mandela must be protected because she is a prominent black leader and surely only racist whites were intended to be called to account by the TRC.

The view is ill conceived. Firstly, in this quasi-religious process, sin had been discovered to be fairly widely spread. And secondly, the Winnie hearings have not divided opinion into two district camps - black and white. After all, those who suffered were her own; and the families demanding the TRC investigate her alleged gross human rights abuses are all black.

Bishop Peter Storey, the leader of the Methodist Church, hit it right. He said the Winnie scandal was about the abuse of small people by the powerful. It is possible, he said, (clearly with Mrs Mandela in mind) to become like those we most despise (the brutal custodians of the apartheid system).

The context in which Mrs Mandela's alleged abuses took place was clearly laid out. Azar Cachalia, one of the few brave ANC figures to unequivocally condemn Mrs Mandela (and for that he can expect to suffer if she does rise to power), said anarchy reigned in Soweto. Thousands of youths, displaced and psychologically disturbed by the civil war, roamed the township, using on each other the torture techniques the state had inflicted on them.

Jerry Richardson, Mrs Mandela's former henchman, now serving life for murdering Stompie, also testified that the boy was tortured using techniques borrowed from the Boers. Violence had bred violence on an horrific scale.

Mrs Mandela showed no understanding of this. She was defiant, unwavering and, despite a vague apology prised from her by a begging Archbishop Tutu, totally unrepentant. On Thursday she was the same old Winnie; charismatic and strong but without insight or humility. She made a mockery of the Commission by denying everything and leaning on witnesses who later failed to show. A consummate populist, she turned the TRC into a political rally and used smears, racism and sarcasm to swipe at her detractors and accusers.

So why was she feted like a heroine at the end when the mother of Lolo Sono, in whose murder Mrs Mandela was implicated by credible witnesses, was weeping that there was no justice and Mrs Seipei, having delivered the PR cuddle, was sitting alone and rather lost in the emptying hall. The little people were once again used and discarded.

This was no time for cuddles. Small people do matter and so does truth; particularly in a country which lived a filthy lie for so long. As the TRC would usually tell you, there is no short cut to truth or reconciliation.

Mrs Mandela should never have had as much as a sniff of reconciliation when truth was so obviously absent. It reduced the TRC, of which I have been a defender, to a gameshow with Archbishop Tutu as the well-meaning but misguided host.