Mandela's loss of touch puts ANC on the defensive


in Durban

Nelson Mandela is stumbling. For the first time in his long political career, the Nobel laureate and South Africa's great conciliator is making uncharacteristic blunders that threaten to tarnish his image and unleash a new round of factional bloodshed in the troubled province of KwaZulu- Natal.

The first and perhaps most embarrassing of Mr Mandela's blunders concerns Reverend Allan Boesak, who has been accused of having embezzled funds allocated to his Foundation for Peace and Justice by the Danish Charity DanChurch. When the scandal of the allegedly missing 2m to 3m rand (£350,000 to £500,000) broke in February, the charismatic Dr Boesak was South Africa's ambassador designate to the UN in Geneva.

The announcement of an investigation by the Office for Serious Economic Offences (Oseo) prompted him to withdraw his nomination. At the same time, the ANC pre-empted Oseo by announcing its own inquiry under Mojanki Gumbi, a young legal adviser to the Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki. Last week, Ms Gumbi released a three-page report of her findings claiming that, far from misappropriating funds, Dr Boesak was owed money. The ANC called her work "a sterling investigation". The opposition and media immediately battered the government. Even pro-ANC newspapers published front-page articles under large headlines which generally included the word "whitewash".

Last Wednesday, after a rebuttal of her report by DanChurch's lawyers, a humbled Ms Gumbi admitted her findings were inconclusive. But it was too late to stop Mr Mandela and Mr Mbeki from announcing that Dr Boesak had been cleared. The President said "Allan Boesak is one of the most gifted young men in the country .... He deserves a very high diplomatic post." Portugal was suggested as the most likely posting.

Stories attributed to knowledgeable politicians then began to surface at the weekend saying that the real reason for the government's tortured efforts to reinstate Dr Boesak was to repay him for brokering a multi- million dollar foreign donation last year for the party. The bubble finally burst on Tuesday night, when the President's top advisers announced that no final decision had been taken on Dr Boesak's future.

If it did not undermine the President's prestige, the whole Boesak affair would be laughable. Such is not the case, however, with the other issue that Mr Mandela is stumbling over: trouble in KwaZulu-Natal.

Mr Mandela has engaged in brinkmanship with his main rival, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who also happens to be Home Affairs Minister in his coalition cabinet and the leader of the predominantly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

On Monday, during a May Day rally in Umlazi, near Durban, Mr Mandela told 20,000 militant KwaZulu-Natal ANC supporters that Inkatha was using government funds to foment violence in the province. He then threatened to cut off government funds to the Inkatha-led provincial government. His outburst was attacked by opposition groups as being irresponsible and inflammatory in a province where violence between the ANC and IFP is on the increase.

On Tuesday night, Mr Mandela's advisers sought to defuse the row by saying that cutting off government funds was unconstitutional and that the President would "always act within the constitution". But they defended Mr Mandela's remarks as a response to the political manoeuvrings and threats against the government by Inkatha.

Mr Mandela changed tack again yesterday and renewed his threat to cut funding to KwaZulu-Natal, and said if he did not have the power to enforce his threat, he would acquire it by amending the constitution if necessary. "If the situation that is taking place in Natal is allowed to go on, I have no alternative, and I want everyone to know, that I will use everything to protect the lives of innocent people in the province," he said.

Already the political fatality rate is climbing, including massacres of both ANC and IFP supporters. Mervyn Frost, a lecturer at Natal University, said brinkmanship was a dangerous mistake. "Up until now President Mandela has not put his foot wrong. He has always responded as a statesman. But this outburst will have the effect of strengthening Inkatha's anger."