Winnie faces stern test at the grass roots

A chastened Winnie Mandela headed home to lick her political wounds yesterday as it became clear that for now, at least, her much-feared support in disadvantaged black townships may have been overrated.

By late yesterday Mrs Mandela had made no public comment on her sacking from the government of national unity by her estranged husband, President Nelson Mandela. She had been deputy minister for arts, culture, science and technology.

Her former press secretary, Alan Reynolds, said: "She will return to her constituency and remain a loyal member of ANC. Freed from duties as deputy minister, she will devote herself to her constituents."

But as she leaves Cape Town's politics for her mansion in Soweto near Johannesburg, she faces her hardest fight yet out of public disgrace as the first minister of the African National Congress to be fired since it took power after last April's democratic elections.

It is a paradox that while Mrs Mandela, 61, spent much of her energy railing against attacks on her by the media, the reality may be that it was the media that was sustaining her high profile all along.

An ANC spokesman went so far as to claim that not one delegation or supporter was known to have called yesterday to protest at her dismissal at ANC headquarters in Johannesburg. A few small protests have been noted around the country, but they paled by comparison to the demonstrations when she was temporarily forced to resign her ANC posts in 1992 after a conviction for kidnapping.

"She does have support, but our leaders do not have blind support. It is based on principles. You lose it if you go astray," the ANC spokesman said. "So far, the indications are that all the structures have supported the President's decision."

As President Mandela tightened the noose around her neck in the past week, steadily briefing all ANC organisations and allies in order to minimise grass roots protests, Mrs Mandela tried to rally her supporters. "We are the ANC," she shouted to crowds in black townships, flanked by members of a populist group that foreign diplomats like to call the ANC's "corrupt Africanist faction". But when push came to shove, not one of the populists condemned the decision to drop her from the government.

President Mandela had plenty of material to choose from. Police are investigating allegations that Mrs Mandela accepted kickbacks for government contracts, along with other allegations of sleazy activities. She had also repeatedly criticised the government and defied its orders.

Diplomats also point out that while Mrs Mandela was the fifth most popular choice in the election to the ANC's National Executive Council four months ago, the bulk of the 80-member council was dominated by moderates.

"The sacking was well prepared, and her support has been overrated. She was her own worst enemy: ordinary people won't forgive her for corruption. It will take her a long time to recover from this," one diplomat said.

Mrs Mandela does enjoy recognition nation-wide, thanks to her high-profile fight against apartheid. But her best support is localised -in townships east of Johannesburg, where she channelled development money, and in her home area of the Eastern Cape.

Mrs Mandela still has to be careful what she says, because the ANC could remove her from her post as a member of parliament for dissent.

While some radio stations predicted that Mrs Mandela would concentrate on building up a power base to mount a populist challenge for the ultimate succession to President Mandela, the Johannesburg newspaper Business Day saw the ANC moving to the centre-left.

"Her backing remains limited and manageable because most citizens accept that change cannot be wrought overnight. But she will continue to remind the government of the need to deliver," the newspaper said in an editorial.

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