Old hatreds mar party for Mandela's birthday: John Carlin on mixed fortunes for key players in Johannesburg

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NELSON MANDELA was 75 yesterday but the weekend celebrations were somewhat undermined by the news that ANC deputy president Walter Sisulu's car had been allegedly shot at by police in Soweto on Saturday night; that Winnie Mandela had been suspended from the ANC Women's League for a year; and that Inkatha chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi had suspended his participation in constitutional talks and, once again, threatened civil war.

Mr Sisulu was on his way home to Soweto late on Saturday night after a glittering banquet in central Johannesburg to mark Mr Mandela's birthday when a police car pulled up alongside the three-car convoy in which he was travelling and opened fire, the ANC said in a statement yesterday. The driver of one of the cars died.

The ANC's Johannesburg leader, Tokyo Sexwale, said there was reason to believe the incident had been an attempt on the life of Mr Sisulu, Mr Mandela's closest and - at 81 - oldest friend. A police spokesman, denying the claim, said Mr Sisulu's bodyguards had shot first.

The banquet earlier, which 650 guests had paid 500 rand ( pounds 100) each to attend, had been a boisterously cheerful occasion bringing together leading South African businessmen, artists and celebrities. Veteran South African politician Helen Suzman - who sat next to Mr Mandela - was there, as was the novelist Nadine Gordimer and stars of the hit musical Sarafina.

Conspicuous by her absence was Winnie Mandela, with whom her husband has barely exchanged a word since announcing their separation in April last year. In recent months she has added political treachery to her well-chronicled marital and criminal misdemeanours, repeatedly denouncing the ANC leadership as 'sell-outs'.

Yesterday the ANC Women's League finally acted, announcing that Mrs Mandela had been suspended 'with immediate effect' from the organisation for one year. In its statement, the ANCWL said she had 'displayed defiance, insubordination and total disloyalty'.

Mr Mandela's disenchantment with his wife mirrors the evolution of his relationship with Chief Buthelezi, whom he described three years ago as a good friend. Today he views each with a deep sense of betrayal.

Mr Mandela's opinion of the Zulu chief will not have improved following his latest statement at the Inkatha Freedom Party's annual conference in Ulundi, the capital of his KwaZulu 'homeland'. Sounding uncannily like his allies in the far-right Conservative Party, Chief Buthelezi said on Saturday that he was prepared to die to defend his right to 'self-determination' and warned that any attempts to destroy KwaZulu could trigger civil war.

On Friday he announced that Inkatha would not attend multi- party talks when they resume this morning and threatened to pull out of constitutional negotiations altogether. If that happened, he said, he would establish an alternative negotiating forum with his allies excluding the ANC and the government - undoubtedly the two largest political groupings.

Opinion polls released last week revealed that in the Johannesburg area, Inkatha enjoyed the support of 25 per cent of whites and 4 per cent of blacks. In Natal, Zulu country, support among blacks was only 30 per cent.

(Photograph omitted)