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Winnie Mandela will not kiss power goodbye

From bitter struggle to troubled victory, the populist heroine has had the support of South Africa's dispossessed

Winnie Mandela may have been sacked from the South African government yesterday, but she is a survivor who has fought back from worse predicaments with a populist panache lacked by many of the top leaders of the African National Congress.

The estranged wife of President Nelson Mandela is not a woman easily nailed down, as everybody from South Africa's old white apartheid rulers to interviewers have found. Taxing her with her conviction for kidnapping and allegations of corruption, one reporter remembered her response: a full kiss on the lips followed by a sweeping exit from the room.

Even her date of birth is slippery. She gives her age as 59, but in fact she is 61 years old, daughter of a provincial schoolteacher and descendant of a tribal chief. Her relatives sometimes take the title "princess": Winnie Mandela's staff and admirers have dubbed her the Queen of Africa. With her regal bearing and flowing robes, the title is only half a joke.

Winnie Mandela was a pioneer and risk-taker from thestart. She was the first black health worker in South Africa when Nelson Mandela married her in 1958 after plucking her from the fringes of his generation of black political activists.

"I told her it was more than likely that we would have to live on her small salary as a health worker. Winnie understood, and said she was prepared to take the risk and throw in her lot with me. I never promised her gold and diamonds, and I was never able to give them to her," wrote Mr Mandela in his autobiography, Long Walk to reedom.

Not only did Mr Mandela not give her gold and diamonds, but he barely gave of himself. Winnie only lived with him for five weeks before he disappeared for his legendary 27 years in jail, and even then he often only came home to sleep between work and political meetings.

Mrs Mandela was drawn deeper into politics. She daringly spoke out for the ANC during the darkest years of apartheid. She endured constant police harassment and 17 years of orders barring free movement. She was also jailed for 16 months.

Mrs Mandela's radical speeches appeared to condone the use of "necklacing" in township fighting, and she defended herself with an unsavoury group of bodyguards, the Mandela ootball Club. Rough justice was meted out from a kangaroo court operated by Mrs Mandela and her daughter, Zindzi. Most punishments were beatings, but the 14-year-old activist Stompie Moeketsi Seipei was murdered in 1989. Mrs Mandela was eventually sentenced to six years' imprisonment for her role in the kidnapping of Stompie, reduced on appeal to a £9,000 fine.

This atmosphere, Mrs Mandela's active love life while her husband was in prison, and the fact that the leader of the ANC was never at home persuaded South Africa's most famous couple to separate in 1992.

The Stompie scandal also forced Mrs Mandela to resign her ANC posts, but she soon came storming back. The 3,000 delegates to the December 1994 ANC congress chose her as their fifth-favourite leader.

But after the ANC won the April 1994 elections, Mrs Mandela never adapted to her role as a deputy minister in the government of national unity.

Meanwhile, she acquired the trappings of worldly wealth that Mr Mandela says he did not give her, and she still enjoys the inestimable weight of the Mandela name as she tries once again to repair her political fortunes outside the established system.