Mandela faces crisis over `Gang of Three'

TO DEFEAT an enemy, wrote South Africa's President Nelson Mandela in one of the most telling lines in his autobiography, one should work with that person until he or she becomes a partner. But now Mr Mandela must decide what he should do if those enemies are already his partners at the heart of his African National Congress. Or even, most importantly in the past month, his wife.

All are part of a group of populist radicals who pose one of the gravest dilemmas for the 76-year-old leader. He must deal with their alleged sleazy behaviour to protect his hallowed international reputation and that of the ANC; but if he does, he risks alienating the black radical constituency they all represent.

His problem was highlighted again this weekend, when the Johannesburg Citizen reported that his estranged wife, Winnie Mandela, might cut short a proposed two-week visit to West Africa, having set off on Thursday in defiance of the president. A presidential spokesman said on Thursday that Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, on Mr Mandela's instructions, had told her to cancel the trip. She had written to the president explaining why it was important to proceed, then left before her representations could be considered.

When she arrived on Friday in Burkino Faso, where she was attending the opening of an African film festival yesterday, she made no comment on the dispute.

President Mandela was "hopping mad", according to a South African government source, because the trip clashed with a two-day meeting of the ANC executive to discuss setting up a disciplinary committee.

The Citizen said Mrs Mandela would return early, but not before a meeting in Ghana with President Jerry Rawlings and African culture ministers, expected to end on Tuesday. Her spokesman claimed a request to cancel the trip arrived after she had already left South Africa.

Mr Mandela is being pressed this way and that as he decides what to do about what one newspaper has called "The Gang of Three": Mrs Mandela; the former ANC Youth League leader, Peter Mokaba; and the former military ruler of the old Transkei homeland, Bantu Holomisa.

All appear hungry for power far beyond their respective current posts as deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology, chairman of parliament's tourism committee and deputy minister of the environment.

Backed by columnists in white-owned media that publish regular allegations of sleaze and abuse of power by the radical faction, Mr Mandela's instinct has been to discipline what he has called "disregard or disrespect for the policies and decisions of the government of national unity". The president opened parliament by criticising the way a "culture of entitlement" was leading to anarchy, and reacted sharply to last Tuesday's parliamentary walk-out by Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the mercurial minister of home affairs. Mr Mandela has even hinted that he may be prepared to mobilise the armed forces to curb any new upsurge of violence in KwaZulu-Natal, where Mr Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party is struggling for power with the ANC.

But the dissidents inside pose a whole new challenge, not only to the ANC but to Mr Mandela's non-racial ideology of cooperation with the white minority. Mr Mokaba, for instance, is best known for whipping up a crowd to shout "Kill the Farmer, Kill the Boer". The 83-year-old organisation has an almost mystical belief in consensus and never split in exile. The leadership is still bending over backwards to prevent that happening now.

"Five or six populists seem to hold the party to ransom," said Tony Leon, leader of the small, liberal Democratic Party, adding that recent events raised the question of whether the ANC could continue as one political institution. The ANC's Women's League has already divided over Mrs Mandela's actions and the ANC Youth League is showing signs of splintering. Some ANC strategists worry that the party might be left holding a thin centre between a frustrated black vote open to populists such as the "Gang of Three" and a conservative vote going to the National Party, the former apartheid rulers led by F W de Klerk.

"Breakaways are smaller than imagined, and I don't think there is a breakaway mood in the ANC at the moment," said veteran liberal politician Colin Egan. "There is a difference between grandstand populism and using it to start a new political movement. So far it's trapped in the ANC. But there is still fertile ground for populism."

And Mrs Mandela, who separated from her husband in 1992, is popular, charismatic and strikingly good-looking.

ANC sources say their internal crisis is coming to a head.