The South African fraud squad raided the home and private offices of Winnie Mandela yesterday, accusing her of taking kickbacks in contracts to build low-cost houses in the black townships where she is most idolised.
The high-profile police action was the clearest sign yet that President Nelson Mandela's government of national unity is ready to crack down on allegations of sleaze against some officials of Mr Mandela's African National Congress party.
"The police have a job to do," said Mr Mandela's spokesman, Parks Makahlane. "In the old days, the police might not have been able to do anything [about corruption]. There is a new situation now. They must do their work without undue interference. This government is committed to transparency and accountability."
The raid came just one day after the ANC's national executive had decided not to hold disciplinary proceedings against Mrs Mandela or two of her radical allies, against whom similar allegations have been made. But an ANC spokesman, Jackson Mthembu, said things had changed. "We just did not know. We are very upset and disturbed by these allegations against a leading member of this movement. The ANC will support the investigation," he added.
The ANC's cold shoulder is likely to be as critical a blow as the investigation itself to the career in government of Mrs Mandela, who defied her estranged husband only last week to set off for a tour of West Africa as deputy minister for arts, culture, science and technology.
Closeted in her Abidjan, Ivory Coast, hotel, Mrs Mandela was said to be furious as police swarmed over her plush mansion in Soweto. Every corner was searched for more than 10 hours under the hostile gaze of her daughter, Zindzi, and Mrs Mandela's lawyers, who attempted to block police use of the documents they seized by challenging the validity of the search warrants.
Mr Mandela's new police chief and the ANC minister for safety and security said they were informed of the new investigations a week ago. Mr Mandela only learned of the raids after they happened. "The president does not have to indicate how the police drive their cars on the street," Mr Makahlane said.
A police spokesman for the Commercial Crime Unit that launched the raids said they had been informed that Mrs Mandela received a 75,000 rand (£13,600) kickback plus a promise of £6,000 a month in exchange for awarding three contracts for low-cost housing to a company, Professional Builders. According to the police unit, Mrs Mandela even wanted effective control of Professional Builders. Her daughter Zindzi was to be given 50 per cent of shares in the company, with another shareholding given to her personal physician.
The kickback payments were allegedly chanelled through Coordinated Anti- Poverty Program, a charity Mrs Mandela heads which is active in the Sophia township near Johannesburg. It became the centre of a scandal last month after revelations that Mrs Mandela gave it about £67,000 of Pakistani aid. Some say it should have gone to the ANC Women's League, which she also heads.
The Women's League is still in confusion after nearly half its executive committee resigned last month. They cited undemocratic procedures after Mrs Mandela took the organisation into a tourism venture with the actor Omar Sharif, even though the committee was not in favour of the venture.
South Africa's other main political parties yesterday called for Mrs Mandela to be suspended from her government post. But even if she loses her government position, the charismatic 59- year-old radical's political future may not be over.
Mrs Mandela was forced to resign all her ANC positions after a court found her guilty in 1991 of kidnapping a young township militant who was later killed by her guards.
But in 1993 she came back from the political dead to win the presidency of the Women's League. At an ANC congress in December that year delegates' votes showed her to be the ANC's fifth most popular leader.Reuse content