She was once known as the mother of black South Africa. Winnie Mandela, the 54-year-old wife of jailed African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela, was also a widely known and admired heroine to much of the outside world. She acquired that status by raising two children alone while enduring house arrest, detention and years of internal exile, and by carrying the banner of her husband’s—and her people’s— battle for racial equality. But last week—after reports had gradually spread of her increasingly erratic behavior and the tough tactics of a band of young blacks who act as her protectors—leaders of South Africa’s antiapartheid organizations formally, and publicly, disowned her. And police said they have evidence that her bodyguards’ brutality had extended to murder—and that Mandela herself was under intense scrutiny.
In addition to her social and political ostracism, Winnie Mandela’s marriage may have been threatened by last week’s events—and her husband may have approved of the harsh treatment she received. The police began the week investigating the disappearance of one black youth who had been abducted by the bodyguards—members of the so-called Mandela United Football Club, which she founded two years ago to help unemployed black teenagers. But, by week’s end, they were investigating two—and possibly four—murders, all of them allegedly traceable to the same group of young men. As those events unfolded, the government itself surprised many South Africans by making a dramatic conciliatory gesture—defusing a jailhouse hunger strike by promising to release hundreds of political detainees.
Winnie Mandela’s slow fall from grace dates from April, 1986. Then—at the height of racial violence that led to the declaration of a state of emergency by the white minority government in Pretoria—she made a statement that shocked many opponents of apartheid around the world. Referring to the gruesome practice of “necklacing”—killing suspected police agents and collaborators by wrapping a gasoline-soaked rubber tire around the victim’s neck and setting it on fire—she declared, “With our boxes of matches and our
necklaces, we shall liberate this country.” The ANC leadership in exile in Zambia criticized her for the remark. And Nelson Mandela, then serving his life sentence for treason in Pollsmoor prison, south of Cape Town, added
his own rebuke. But a year later, with dissent stifled in South Africa by the government’s draconian emergency regulations, Mandela’s comments were largely forgotten. In a worldwide poll of 250 newspaper editors, she was voted one of the world’s 10 most important women, outranking Queen Elizabeth, Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev.
But in the black township of Soweto, outside Johannesburg, her football club guardians, wearing the gold, black and green colors of the
ANC, were becoming notorious for their brutality. And Mandela was widely blamed for not restraining them; some people charged that she even encouraged them.
Events began to move toward a climax last summer when some of the bodyguards allegedly raped a Soweto high-school girl. In reprisal, some boys from the same school fire-bombed Mandela’s house. Meanwhile, Soweto was filled with rumors about her alleged heavy drinking, bouts of bad temper and wild parties in her house with the football club. Nelson Mandela, exiled ANC president Oliver Tambo and Desmond Tutu, Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, all called on her to disband the club, but she refused. Then, in September, a black youth testified in court that he had been
kidnapped and tortured in Mandela’s presence, but the case was dropped because of a lack of evidence.
At the end of December, another kidnapping occurred when four black youths were taken from a Methodist church hostel. One of the kidnapped youths escaped. The others were reportedly taken to the Mandela house, beaten in Winnie Mandela’s presence and held prisoner for more than two weeks. During that time, another of the abducted boys—14-year-old
Stompie Moeketsi—disappeared. His badly decomposed body, which police found in Soweto on Jan. 7 after receiving an anonymous tip, was not identified until last week.
Meanwhile, police announced that the body of still another youth found in Soweto last week had been identified as that of Maxwell Madondo, 19, a member of the football club. Then, on Feb. 15, police seized Mandela’s minibus for forensic tests. They later announced that they were investigating the disappearance of two more young men who had allegedly been abducted by her bodyguards last November.
Those developments nearly overshadowed a significant government concession last week to South African political prisoners. During a mass hunger strike by more than
300 prisoners, Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok said that he would free many of the 1,000 prisoners held without trial around the country. The strikers had demanded immediate and unconditional release and the abolition of detention without trial. Instead, Vlok offered to review the cases of all political detainees and to release a majority of them. Claiming partial victory, the prisoners suspended their hunger strike on Feb. 16. The compromise solution prevented further suffering by strikers—some of whom had been starving themselves for 24 days—and avoided
a potential political crisis for Pretoria.
But Winnie Mandela’s crisis clearly dominated events. She threatened to sue two South African newspapers—which linked her to the bodyguards’ violence—for libel. She also pledged to hold a news conference soon to clarify her position. And she visited her husband, who has been confined to a house on the grounds of a prison near Cape Town since his release last December from a prison hospital where he underwent treatment for tuberculosis. Afterwards, she refused to talk to reporters about what passed between them and she cancelled the news conference.
A day later, the Mass Democratic Movement—an umbrella anti-apartheid organization—held its own news conference in Johannesburg, and caused a sensation. Officials of the United Democratic Front, representing 750 anti-apartheid groups, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, representing 800,000 workers, sat grimfaced as UDF publicity secretary Murphy Morobe read a two-page statement. It acknowledged Winnie Mandela’s services to the cause of black rights, her “painful” separation from her husband during his 26 years in prison and her “cruel banishment” to a remote part of the Orange Free State from 1977 to 1985. But, the statement continued: “We are outraged by Mrs. Mandela’s complicity in the recent abductions and the assault of Stompie. Had Stompie and his three colleagues not been abducted by Mrs. Mandela’s ‘football team’ he would have been alive today.”
Her accusers then passed sentence. Declared Morobe: “The Mass Democratic Movement hereby distances itself from Mrs. Mandela and her actions. We call on our people, in particular the Soweto community, to exercise this distancing in a dignified manner.” Later, Morobe indicated to reporters that the statement had the approval of Nelson Mandela. And one source, who did not want to be identified, said that it also represented the position of the exiled ANC leadership.
Late last week, Winnie Mandela removed a group of bodyguards from the football club from her home, apparently on the orders of her husband. She was maintaining her silence, but her downfall was likely to prove as bitter as anything she had suffered on behalf of the cause she had once so bravely championed.
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