Mrs Mandela, a junior official in the organisation her estranged husband leads, was in her car when her bodyguard and driver, John Lawrence, exchanged fire in a crowded street with an unnamed black man.
The police said yesterday that, according to their investigations, the incident resulted from a disagreement between Mr Lawrence and the attacker, a pedestrian who - not unusually in Johannesburg - happened to be armed. They said Mr Lawrence had been forced by a crowd to stop the car, prompting a heated exchange between himself and the pedestrian. Mr Lawrence got out of the car brandishing a pistol, cocked the pistol and slapped the man in the face.
He then got back into the car and drove off, but the pedestrian, who followed angrily on foot, caught up with the car at a busy intersection. The police said that the pedestrian, whose name had not been released last night, approached Mrs Mandela's car, pulled the driver's door open and fired at Mr Lawrence with a 9mm pistol. Mr Lawrence, though fatally wounded, fired back. The attacker died 10 yards from the car. Mrs Mandela was unhurt.
Nelson Mandela, the ANC president, was in Natal electioneering when the incident happened. Not moved to return to Johannesburg to visit his wife, with whom relations are sour, he said yesterday that 'an element of pure crime' appeared to be involved. 'The incident is regrettable and I hope justice will be done,' he said.
But Matthew Phosa, who heads the ANC's legal department, said there had been many assassination plots against ANC figures and a political motive could not be ruled out. He added that the police had agreed to conduct a joint investigation with the ANC into the incident. Police said they had taken a statement from Mrs Mandela at home and had interrogated another pedestrian arrested in connection with the incident.
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