Winnie climbs down as Mandela gets tough

President Nelson Mandela has finally cracked down on his estranged wife, Winnie, sending a warning signal to the radical wing of his African National Congress as well as to ANC officials alleged to have taken personal advantage of their new power.

The deeply angered president forced Mrs Mandela to draft a second letter to retract a speech in which she harshly criticised the government 10 days ago. President Mandela had rejected a letter, which stopped well short of a climbdown. In the second missive, Mrs Mandela swallowed her rhetoric, gave an abject apology and chose to stay in office as a deputy minister for arts and science.

"I would like to apologise most sincerely for the impression the speech caused that I sought to condemn the government," Mrs Mandela wrote. "I sincerely regret any embarrassment that the speech might have caused the president." Mr Mandela, whose marriage broke down three years ago, accepted the second letter. His firm action was in line with calls for such action in the South African press. Commentators said the crisis, which has served as a distraction from more positive changes, such as Mr Mandela's opening yesterday of South Africa's new constitutional court, was over for now.

"Sadly, President Mandela has failed to deal promptly with these matters . . . his tough response is justified," said the Johannesburg Star. Business Day said the ANC had to act earlier rather than later to rein in its "loose cannons". One senior commentator, who declined to be identified, said the past few days of crisis were important in showing that President Mandela intended the ANC-led government to abide by the high standards it sets itself and to tackle what the Johannesburg Sunday Times called a "sleaze factor that threatens SA's dreams". The commentator pointed out, that for the dispossessed, Mrs Mandela has a special charisma. "Winnie is a dynamic all on her own. She operates outside the structures. She thinks she can say what she likes. This is the first time that she's been brought to book. President Mandela sent a powerful message."

That message was also given on Monday when Mr Mandela accepted the resignation of veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Allan Boesak from his nomination as South Africa's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. An investigation alleged that Mr Boesak pocketed funds donated for the oppressed poor from abroad.

Then there is the row over whether Mrs Mandela had been right to take £65,000 from Pakistan and give it to a township said to be politically close to her, or whether she should have given it to the ANC's Women's League, of which she is president.Nearly half of the league's executive committee resigned on Saturday, over Mrs Mandela's headstrong leadership.