An artful ploy to disarm the dangerous Mandela: Top job in new government keeps Winnie on the leash

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The Independent Online
THE choice of Winnie Mandela as South Africa's Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology is a curious business. She thought so too. 'Winnie was quite surprised,' said a source close to her. 'When I told her, she thought I was joking. She thought it was a 'weird portfolio'.'

So weird that she did not even turn up for the deputy ministers' swearing-in ceremony in Pretoria on Friday. According to Thabo Mbeki, the first Deputy President, she went off instead to Transkei, 500 miles away, for an urgent meeting with the Pondo royal family. Evidently the erstwhile Mother of the Nation sees her appointment as a double-edged sword.

On one hand, she has cause to celebrate, to gloat. For two and a half years between 1986 and 1989 she was associated with the so-called Mandela Football Club in Soweto, a gang that carried out more than a dozen murders and tortured black youths. She was convicted of assault and kidnapping, and only avoided a six-year jail sentence on appeal.

She persisted in an affair with a young lawyer for two years after her venerable husband's release from prison; an African National Congress internal commission alleged last year that she had misappropriated 400,000 rands (pounds 80,000) from the organisation's coffers during her tenure of its health and social welfare department; and in mid-1992, after Nelson Mandela announced their marital separation, she was stripped of all her official ANC titles.

But today she is a member of parliament, privileged with a well-paid position one step away from the cabinet.

What gives Mrs Mandela pause is the thought that the back benches might have provided a better platform from which to pursue her political ambitions. Unlike President Mandela, she has been unable to grow out of the politics of confrontation. She is an inveterate populist who has managed to manipulate to her advantage the sentiments of the ANC's more radical elements, especially among the youth.

During the election campaign the message she would convey to her poorest-of-the-poor audiences would be: 'Vote ANC] But, let me warn the ANC leadership that if they do not meet your demands they will have to answer to me.'

The decision to appoint her to a position in the new administration may be viewed as perverse in the light of the ANC's commitment to sweep South Africa with a new moral broom. But it may also be viewed as quite brilliant. Her thunder has been stolen.

'If you are in Rome, you do what the Romans are doing,' said Richard Maponya, a rich businessman close to the ANC inner circle. 'She could have caused a lot of trouble if she had been left outside. Now she will be under control. She will have to toe the line.'

Who would have made the decision? Not President Mandela alone. On those rare occasions when he is seen in public with her, he makes little attempt to conceal his distaste. In the first session of the new parliament on Monday, under the glare of the world's television cameras, he turned his back on her when she came close.

According to ANC insiders, the idea behind the decision to make Mrs Mandela a deputy minister was Thabo Mbeki's. His politics are guided largely by Lyndon B Johnson's celebrated observation that it is better to have potential troublemakers 'inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in'.

In that wise phrase is contained the key to the success of South Africa's extraordinary political transformation. That is what the government of national unity, the coalition that will run the country for the next five years, is all about.

F W de Klerk and his foreign minister, Pik Botha, served between them for 23 years in a full-blown apartheid cabinet, but today one is the second Deputy President, the other is Minister of Energy; Mangosuthu Buthelezi has long been viewed by most people in the ANC as dangerous, but today he is Minister of Home Affairs; General Georg Meiring, an army officer who bears collective responsibility for countless abominations, remains chief of the Defence Force.

The ANC's calculation has been that in order to ensure peace, stability and possible prosperity, morality and justice have had to be sacrificed on the altar of political compromise.

Will Mrs Mandela be good at her job? The fear in liberal circles is that she will evolve into a sort of Stalinist cultural commissar. If she does not, she has the elan to revitalise the arts. Unlike the dour Arts Minister, Ben Ngubane, she does have an extraordinary presence, a superstar quality that still commands sufficient admiration among, for example, black American artists, to suggest she will be able to raise substantial quantities of foreign cash.

What does her future hold? Will she become president after her husband's death? She might have had a better chance had she not been made a deputy minister.

It is impossible to predict what shape South African politics will take. The alarming lesson from recent experience, however, is that it is not only virtue, as in the case of Mr Mandela, that is rewarded in South Africa. Evil is too.

(Photograph omitted)