Martyr the ANC can do without: Winnie Mandela can make political capital out of her coming appeal

AS IF the assassination of Chris Hani had not imposed severe enough strains on the South African body politic, new dangers loom with the possibility that another cult figure of the African National Congress (ANC), Winnie Mandela, might soon be elevated to the status of martyr.

Judgment is due to be passed within two weeks on her appeal against a six-year jail sentence, lawyers close to the case said yesterday. If she loses, then the social healing process under way since Hani's funeral will be reversed. Wounds will reopen and the ANC leadership will be more hardpressed than ever to restrain the violent urges of the youths at its radical core.

The betting in legal circles, however, is that Mrs Mandela will win the appeal. But this does not mean that the ANC's problems will go away. A vindicated Mrs Mandela will remain a headache for her estranged husband and other leaders eager to pursue peaceful negotiations.

Her behaviour in recent weeks has left no doubt that she continues to entertain high political ambitions. This despite having been expelled from all ANC office-bearing positions last year following the exposure of her affair with a lawyer with whom, it has been alleged, she mismanaged official ANC funds. And despite the break-up of her marriage, which had provided her strongest political power-base.

The ANC's national executive has cast her out into the political cold. Nelson Mandela simply does not talk to her. But, a hardened survivor, she has sought to rebuild her political career among the poorest of South Africa's poor. She has started the Co- ordinated Anti-Poverty Programme (Capp) which supplies the bread-and-butter essentials of decent living to squatter-camp dwellers, in particular to those of Phola Park, a shanty settlement south-east of Johannesburg.

Phola Park residents, who call her 'mummy', say she visits in her white Mercedes two or three times a week. Every time, excited throngs gather around her. She has helped them improve their access to water, electricity and telephone lines. When boys tell her that what they want most is a football, she buys them one. No more compelling political message is possible among the poor. As she explained to the Baltimore Sun: 'It is the people themselves who create leaders.'

The diet she provides is reinforced with a good measure of militant rhetoric. 'People can't eat negotiations,' goes one favourite phrase. At the squatter metropolis of Khayelitsha outside Cape Town she made headlines last week when she and the ANC Youth League leader, Peter Mokaba, summoned a rally to protest over Hani's death. The police are investigating incitement charges against them following their remarks to the crowd. Mr Mokaba struck fear into white hearts when he declared, 'Kill the Boer] Kill the farmers]' (On Thursday, after pressure from an uncomfortable ANC leadership, he said this was merely traditional revolutionary rhetoric and no racist ill-will was intended.)

Mrs Mandela used the platform to pick up a favourite theme. The ANC youth, she said, should take over the ANC leadership, adding that they should take the streets by storm.

Recently she has written articles denouncing what she sees as the unseemly haste with which the ANC, driven by a desire for the 'silken sheets' of office, is entering into a power-sharing deal with the government.

Her calls for what amounts to an internal ANC coup have led some commentators to conclude, given the impracticality of such a notion, that she has plans to form a political party.

Someone who knows both Mr and Mrs Mandela well said yesterday that this was out of the question. 'The fact is that while Winnie might be able to win the devotion of small sectors of the squatter community and the radical youth, Nelson's - and by extension, the ANC's - grip on the imagination of the vast majority of the black population remains as unshakeable as ever.'

Her plan, the source said, is to secure a sufficiently large power base, with democratic elections expected in a year, to persuade the ANC leadership to admit her back into the fold. Given the feelings of Mr Mandela and the ANC's secretary-general, Cyril Ramaphosa, towards her, that seems unlikely. Perhaps her best chance of becoming a major national figure again, of setting the country alight as she once did, lies in the appeal court upholding her jail sentence.