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Fireproof Winnie scorches back

It seemed set to be a humiliating week. First she was ridiculed for selling dirt from the garden of her old Soweto home to tourists. Then she was found trying to flog a warts-and-all account of her life with President Mandela for pounds 500,000. But Winnie Mandela, fallen heroine of the anti-apartheid struggle, has bounced back.

Yesterday, despite the best efforts of the ANC leadership, Winnie Madikizela- Mandela, as she now styles herself, romped home to be re-elected for a second consecutive term as president of the ANC's influential Women's League. Despite the unfavourable press, she flattened all rivals, including the health minister, Dr Nkosazana Zuma, who was the leadership's preferred candidate.

The ANC put on its bravest, even happiest, face. But it must be dismayed by the strength of support for Madikizela-Mandela, who since her monumental fall from grace has rebuilt her political career on often vicious criticism of her ex-husband's government and the slow rate of political change in South Africa. Dr Zuma would have been a far more malleable winner.

Given that it is only five years since she was suspended from the Women's League and stripped of all her party titles - and two years since her divorce - Madikizela-Mandela's political rebirth and consolidation is steaming ahead at a remarkable pace.

No amount of bullying - complained of by her critics in the Women's League - or appalling behaviour diminishes her grassroots standing. She cuckolded the saintly Mandela after his release from jail, was implicated in the murder of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi, and since the late 1980s has been at the centre of a series of fraud allegations.

Like a black Evita, Winnie can spend as much as she likes - during her divorce, court documents showed that President Mandela spent more than R3m (now about pounds 400,000) between 1990 and 1995 keeping her in the style to which she had become accustomed - and somehow remain at one with the poor, who see no inconsistency in her criticism of ANC leaders for their extravagant lifestyles. She is the consummate populist politician.

"Which black person doesn't have a problem with a bond," she asked delegates yesterday, referring to press reports that she could not pay her mortgage because of mounting debts. She added, with no hint of irony, "I am proud of my poverty."

Madikizela-Mandela has risen from the ashes by courting the townships. Unlike others, she has not moved to a swanky northern suburb in Johannesburg. She lives in a virtual palace, but it is in Soweto. And she plays on the impatience of people in the townships for real change.

"She is almost withdrawn when you meet her one-to-one," says a political journalist attempting to explain her appeal. "But put her in the back of a truck in a squatter camp and she goes ballistic." Small wonder, then, that there are concerns in the ANC that she may yet lead a populist split from the party.

Whites fear Madikizela-Mandela for her uncompromising politics and her popular support. The white joke doing the rounds this week is that some unsuspecting tourist may yet find specks of Stompie's blood in the dirt being sold from her old garage at R50 a bottle.

Perhaps blacks have longer memories for the golden days when a proud and wilful - and as yet unsullied - Winnie kept the struggle alive while her husband languished in prison. Perhaps they are just softer-hearted to a woman who might have had it all. A few months ago, the local press carried a photograph taken at a school fundraiser in Soweto. On the platform sat Madikizela-Mandela, all alone.

Four seats away, President Mandela was deep in conversation with his new love, Graca Machel. The president's ex-wife looked every inch a sad and lonely loser.

But yesterday Winnie Madikizela Mandela was once again a winner, buoyed up once more by the devotion of the masses. As she held her fist in triumph, she looked certain to remain a thorn in the side of the ANC.