South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) blasted the former anti-apartheid heroine Winnie Madikizela-Mandela yesterday for provoking an angry brush-off from President Thabo Mbeki.
In an unprecedented attack, the party charged the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela with "tomfoolery" and "unbecoming conduct" because she disrupted proceedings at a rally which resulted in a furious Mr Mbeki publicly spurning her. The statement accused her of "behaving badly, flouting protocol and disregarding the solemnness of the occasion".
The attack was the ANC's first public denunciation of Mrs Madikizela-Mandela and reflected the break-down in relations between her and the President. Twice in South Africa's seven years of democracy, Ms Madikizela-Mandela has worked tirelessly for a Thabo Mbeki victory.
Motivated by antipathy first towards Cyril Ramaphosa, the man who had been Mr Mbeki's only challenger for the position of deputy president of a liberated South Africa in 1994, and later towards Nelson Mandela, who was due to pass the baton of leadership on to a successor in December 1997 the popular Mrs Madikizela-Mandela made no secret of the fact that she believed the University of Sussex-educated economist would make a good leader.
Today, relations between herself and Mr Mbeki are severely strained. For about a year, she has stayed away from meetings of the ANC's national executive committee (of which she is a member) in protest against Mr Mbeki's claims that she has been spreading unfounded rumours about him as a womaniser.
She has vigorously denied these claims and has written to the Deputy President, Jacob Zuma, asking him to mediate between her and Mr Mbeki. Mr Zuma has yet to present a progress report.
These tensions played themselves out in public at the weekend. When Mrs Madikizela-Mandela tried to plant a kiss on Mr Mbeki's cheek at an ANC Youth Day rally in Soweto on Saturday, the president snubbed her in front of thousands of ANC supporters. He moved his face away and lifted his hand to stop her, knocking her cap off her head in the process. He then publicly remonstrated with her before ignoring her.
The Home Affairs Minister and Inkatha Freedom Party leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, sitting next to Mr Mbeki, picked up the cap and placed it on her head. Asked by reporters afterwards for comment, Mrs Madikizela-Mandela, once called the "Mother of the Nation" replied: "Ask him [Mbeki]".
Mrs Madikizela-Mandela, who is president of the ANC Women's League and is popular among rank-and-file ANC members and black people in general, was yesterday admitted to a private clinic in Johannesburg for blood-pressure and stress-related problems, and was this week unable to report to work in Parliament for health reasons.
A chronic late-comer who enjoys the adulation she often gets from her followers, Nelson Mandela's former wife had again arrived late for the function in Soweto. Instead of sitting down, she walked to Mr Mbeki on the podium to greet him with a kiss, and that is when she was snubbed in an incident later shown on national television.
President Mbeki, who had just returned from a state visit to Britain, has refused to comment on the issue. He has come under withering criticism from opposition parties, with the Democratic Alliance saying the sight of Mr Mbeki shoving "an older woman" ranked as one of the most extraordinary of his two-year presidency.
* The Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, said yesterday he welcomed a Nigerian proposal to set up a seven-nation mission to mediate an end to the stand-off between Zimbabwe and Britain over land.
Mr Mugabe made his first official comment on the proposal in a joint statement with President Daniel arap Moi after a visit to Nairobi to discuss land issues with the Kenyan leader.Reuse content