The Indestructible Winnie Mandela

Patrick Laurence writes on a history of returning from the dead

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela may finally have brought her long and controversial political career to an ignominiously end by publicly attacking Nelson Mandela, her former husband and the founding president of South Africa's post-apartheid democracy.

Her attack is contained in an article published in the London Evening Standard and written by Nadira Naipaul, the wife of the distinguished novelist V S Naipaul, after interviewing Madikizela-Mandela in her Soweto home.

During the article Madikizela-Mandela, whose marriage to Nelson Mandela, ended in divorce in 1996, refers scathing to Mandela "letting down" the majority black population by agreeing to a deal during the settlement negotiations that did little or nothing to improve their position economically. In a particularly hurtful statement she describes "the name Mandela" as an albatross around the neck of her family.

But it would be unwise to assume that Madikizela-Mandela has inflicted irreparable damage on herself by her vituperative and unfair verbal assault on her former husband who, at the age of 91, is widely seen as South Africa's premier elder statesman.

Madikizela-Mandela may, of course, seek to escape responsibility for her contemptuous remarks about her Mandela by charging that Naipaul has either misquoted her or quoted her out of context.

Judging from the publication in The Star of the full text of the London Evening Standard article, Naidira probably tape-recorded her conversation with Madikizela-Mandela. In which case that manoeuvre to evade responsibility will be futile. Even so, Madikizela-Mandela may still emerged relatively unscathed, judging by her ability to recover from situations that would have left most people psychologically shattered and physically exhausted, or, to use boxing terminology, down and out for the count.

A brief survey of some of the occasions where Madikizela-Mandela was felled, only to rise phoenix-like and live to fight another day is in order.

In April 1985, shortly after she defied the then white government by violating an edict banishing her to Brandfort in the Free State and returned to Soweto, she declared for all the world to hear: "With our boxes of matches and our necklaces we will liberate (the) country." Her statement was widely interpreted as sanctioning the execution of alleged informers by putting a motorcar tyre filled with petrol around their necks and setting it alight.

Her statement exposed her to possible prosecution for incitement to violence by the government and risked sabotaging the campaign to win support in the white community by the African National Congress and its surrogate in South Africa, the United Democratic Front (UDF). But, barring censorious editorials in the press, and exhortations to the ANC and UDF to put their houses house in order, nothing happened.

Early in 1989 the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) as the UDF had briefly renamed itself, issued a statement distancing itself from Madikizela-Mandela and expressed outrage at the "reign of terror" which her bodyguards were conducting in Soweto, including the kidnapping of three young men and a 14-year-old boy known as Stompie, who was later found with his throat slit in Soweto.

An MDM statement, read out by Murphy Morobe, its publicity secretary, directly linked Madikizela-Mandela with Stompie's death. It asserted that if Stompie had not been abducted by Madikizela-Mandela's bodyguards," he would have been alive today."

Jerry Richardson, the coach of the Mandela United football team, as Madikizela-Mandela's bodyguards were known, was later found guilty of murdering Stompie. Later still, at a special hearing of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997, Richards testified that he had taken Stompie from Madikizela's house in Soweto and killed him on her orders.

There were calls in some quarters for Madikizela-Mandela to be prosecuted for the murder of Stompie, but they came to nothing, perhaps because she was a high-ranking member of the ANC and the mother of two of Mandela's daughters.

Earlier in 1991 Madikizela-Mandela had been prosecuted for the kidnapping of the three young men and Stompie, found guilty of kidnapping and of being an accessory after the fact to the savage beating of the kidnap victims with a sjambok. She was sentence to imprisonment for six years. Her conviction was upheld by the Appeal Court but her prison sentence was rescinded and replace by a fine.

Many observers anticipated that her kidnapping conviction would be a serious impediment to her political career, particularly in view of the finding of the presiding judge: "She showed herself on a number of occasions to be a calm, composed, deliberate and unblushing liar." The observers who thought it was a fatal blow to her career prospects were wrong.

Though Madikizela-Mandela was ousted as president of the ANC Women's League soon after her kidnapping conviction in 1991, the set back was only temporary. She was re-elected as Women's League president in 1993 and again in 1997. In between these triumphs, in 1994 the newly inaugurated President Nelson Mandela appointed her as a deputy minister in his first post-liberation cabinet, only to dismiss her a few months later when she defied him by going on trip to West Africa without his permission.

In 2003 Madikizela-Mandela was in trouble again. She was charges with fraud and theft (as a result of her alleged abuse of her position as Women's League president). She was convicted on both counts, a development that led to her resigning from all her official positions, including her membership of parliament. In 2006 she was acquitted of theft on appeal, though her conviction on the frauds charges was upheld. Her acquittal on the theft charges marked the start of her resurgence as an eminent and persuasive member of ANC.

The first clear sign of her rise again, after her apparent withdrawal from the political arena, was her election to the national executive committee of the ANC at its conference in Polokwane in December 2007. To the surprise of many observers she topped the list of candidates election to the national executive council after the six most important officer bears were elected, starting with the ANC's new president Jacob Zuma.

The second signal that she was once again a prominent and influential member of the ANC was the fifth position assigned to her on the ANC's election list for the April 24 national and provincial elections last year. Her high positions triggered speculation that she might be appointed by Jacob Zuma to serve in his cabinet. She was not invited to do so

In recent weeks she implicitly criticised the Zuma administration and Zuma's leadership of the ANC by describing it as one characterised by manoeuvring for power and prestige rather than service to the nation. It is "not my ANC," she is reported to have said.

Coming on top of that, her fierce criticism of Mandela, who is known to have a close relationship with Zuma during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, may prompt Zuma to chastise her. It is not worth betting on, however.

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