WORLD

Winnie under fire

KATE DUNN October 6 1997
WORLD

Winnie under fire

KATE DUNN October 6 1997

Winnie under fire

WORLD

SOUTH AFRICA

The presidents ex-wife makes a comeback bid

In 1958, when he was thinking of marrying Winnie Madikizela, Nelson Mandela asked his old friends Ismail and Fatima Meer to check out his new fiancée. The Meers’ glowing recommendation helped Mandela decide to marry the woman he later said was the perfect wife for a freedom fighter. But that 33-year partnership ultimately dissolved—as did Winnie Mandela’s saintly reputation. Once known as “The Mother of Africa,” she has now been dubbed “The Black Mamba” (a poisonous snake) of the African National Congress in a new book alleging she personally stabbed 14-year-old Stompie Seipei to death in 1988. Last week, she was forced by subpoena to meet with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in a closed hearing to answer questions about her alleged involvement in a series of murders and assaults in Johannesburg’s black township of Soweto. Yet despite the latest media onslaught, Fatima Meer steadfastly maintains her original good opinion of her 63-year-old friend, who now uses the name Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. “I have known her to be an extraordinary person,” Meer says. “She is remarkably strong, because she has faith in herself and the people around her.” That opinion is shared by other Winnie loyalists, who have just nominated the controversial ANC Women’s League president for the party’s number 2 post. If she wins in December—which many analysts see as a strong possibility—precedent dictates that the woman already convicted of Seipei’s kidnapping would become deputy president of the country by 1999. That prospect is anathema to the ANC brass, who have begun gutting the powers of the deputy president in anticipation. “That’s the paradox of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela,” says Johannesburg political scientist Sheila Meintjies. ‘When she’s down, a lot of supporters rally around. Of all the ANC leadership, she is one of the

few who spends time at the grassroots.”

The new accusations against her arise from the late apartheid days when her husband was still a political prisoner and township violence was at its height. A gang of Soweto toughs known as the Mandela United Football Club protected her. In 1991, she and seven others were tried on charges of kidnapping and murdering Seipei, an accused informer. She was found guilty of kidnapping, but her jail sentence was reduced to a fine on appeal. Mandela team coach Jerry Richardson was later found guilty of the murder and given a life sentence. Partly as a result, the Mandelas separated in 1992.

Now, Richardson and a former club member named Katiza Cebekhulu have claimed that Winnie £ ordered the murder of 5 Seipei, six other townH ship youths and Sowe| to doctor Abu Baker 1 Asvat. Cebekhulu was £ one of the eight co-ac^ cused in the 1991 trial, murder claims but he skipped bail

and is now living in hiding in England under the protection of former British MP Emma Nicholson. His allegations appear in the new book Katiza’s Journey by journalist Fred Bridgeland, which has caused a sensation in South Africa.

Winnie supporters note that both Cebekhulu and Richardson, who never made the new claim at his trial, have asked the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to use its power to grant amnesty in the Seipei case. This would allow Cebekhulu to avoid a trial, and Richardson to get out of jail. After Madikizela-Mandela’s closed-door appearance last week, commissioners said they would grant her request for a hearing in public, to be held in November, when she is likely to denounce her accusers. That will be followed by her ANC comeback bid—at the same time as her 79-year-old exhusband gives up the party leadership in preparation for his planned retirement in 1999. No one is counting Winnie out.

KATE DUNN