World

Winnie under fire

The 'Mother of the Nation' denies she was a killer

KATE DUNN December 15 1997
World

Winnie under fire

The 'Mother of the Nation' denies she was a killer

KATE DUNN December 15 1997

Winnie under fire

World

The 'Mother of the Nation' denies she was a killer

Stompie Seipei's mother, Joyce, is precisely the kind of South African woman who still believes in Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: poor, downtrodden, often little-educated and all too susceptible to the charismatic pull of the "Mother of the Nation." Clad in the typical South African mama's outfit of faded housedress, apron and kerchief, Seipei heaved with sobs during last week's session of the Truth and Reconciliation Conmiission as she heard how Winnie's bodyguards, known as the Mandela United Football Club, slit 14-year-old Stompie's throat "like slaughtering a sheep." But lat er, in a remarkable gesture either of faith in Madik izela-Mandela or of forgiveness, Seipei strode before the television cameras to kiss and hug the woman ac cused of kidnapping and torturing her son and or dering his death. The embrace did to Madikizela Mandela what the barrage of accusations laid against her could not: she gasped with emotion, her mouth trembled, and finally she smiled, as if in relief. The moment was among the most rivetting during nearly two weeks of dramatic hearings about the ex wife of President Nelson Mandela, who now uses her maiden name as well. Witness after witness ac cused her of being the mastermind of a reign of ter ror in the 1980s unleashed by the "football club" in the black township of Soweto, outside Johannes burg. The young men on the team she created, fed and housed played very little soccer. Instead, they

acted as her protectors—and as a band of thugs. They raped, kidnapped, tortured and murdered those in Soweto they claimed were police informers, but who, in fact, simply may have opposed them.

Yet the extent to which Madikizela-Mandela took part in the club’s crimes remained unclear. “As witnesses, her accusers were bloody terrible,” said Edward Bird of the independent Media Monitoring Project in Johannesburg. “Most are police informers, they’re people who have been convicted of murder, or pretty bad crimes, and you’ve got to be pretty cynical about what they say.” MadikizelaMandela, 63, cut a flamboyant figure at the hearings, appearing in an array of striking clothes. But other than describing the accusations against her as “ludicrous” and “ridiculous” and her opponents as “lunatics,” she did not try to explain events. As she has in the past, she portrayed the allegations as part of a long conspiracy against her, begun by the former apartheid government and continued today by her enemies in the African National Congress.

Chaired by former archbishop Desmond Tutu, the commission has for 20 months sought to hear the truth about South Africa’s apartheid years with the aim of bringing some form of reconciliation between former enemies. The 17-member panel can grant amnesty to people who apply for it, but Madikizela-Mandela has not applied. In fact, the hearings that proved so damning to her were her idea. When she appeared under subpoena at a closed-door session in September, she told the commission she wanted a public venting of the allegations that she kidnapped, assaulted and mur-

dered Soweto youths, which she firmly denied. Never one to slink into the shadows, she used the controversy to promote her bid for the deputy presidency of the African National Congress in elections later this month. Currently president of the ANC Women’s League, she was counting on the hearings to reveal her accusers as part of the supposed “cabal” against her. Yet the move may have backfired: her continued backing by the Women’s League for the deputy presidency was in doubt last week, and only a handful of her supporters showed up at the commission hearings.

The crimes linked to Madikizela-Mandela first came to light when Stompie and three other young men were abducted from white Methodist minister Paul Verryn’s home in Soweto on Dec. 29,1988. Allegedly, the boys were taken to Madikizela-Mandela’s home and beaten by members of the football club. Stompie was later found murdered. Verryn, who was away at the time, had been sheltering several youths from the apartheid police. Among those at the house was Xoliswa Falati, an intense woman with black, darting eyes, who played a key role in the events that followed. Claiming that Madikizela-Mandela was behind the killing, she insisted to the commission that Madikizela-Mandela owed her an apology because “I served a jail sentence for her.” She and Madikzela-Mandela were both found guilty in 1991 of kidnapping Stompie and the other three, and being accessories to their assaults. Mandela’s six-year jail sentence was reduced to a fine on appeal. Madikizela-Mandela’s lawyer, Ishmael Semenya, suggested Falati was angry because Madikizela-Mandela did not give her money for an appeal.

One day in December, 1988, Yerryn testified, he returned home to find Stompie “being interrogated, sitting with his head in his hands and crying.” Falati claimed the boy was an informer. In Soweto, suspected informers were summarily executed, often by “necklacing”—a tire placed around the person’s neck, filled with gasoline and set alight. “I called Miss Falati out and said under no circumstances must my mission house become like a police station,” Verryn told the commission. In the same month, a young man named Katiza Cebekhulu asked for refuge in Verryn’s manse. Cebekhulu later claimed that Madikizela-Mandela sent him to the home to frame Verryn, an influential figure in the community whose popularity was eclipsing hers, with unfounded allegations that he was a homosexual who was abusing the boys. Madikizela-Mandela insisted that she first heard the abuse charges from Falati and wanted to rescue the youths.

On Dec. 29, Madikizela-Mandela sent Falati and a neighbor to the manse with orders to pick up Cebekhulu, Stompie and the three other youths. Falati and Cebekhulu each accuse the other of having beaten Stompie and the other three, who survived the ordeal. The greatest mystery is how Stompie was murdered. In a 1997 book that caused a sensation in South Africa, Cebekhulu stated bluntly that he saw Winnie stab Stompie in the neck. But in his commission testimony, he said that in the dark he could not identify what or who it was that Madikizela-Mandela stabbed.

Cebekhulu’s account of Stompie’s death contrasted starkly with later testimony by Jerry Richardson, the former leader of the football club who is serving a life sentence for Stompie’s murder. For the first time, Richardson revealed to the commission that while working as Winnie’s main enforcer he had also been a paid police informer, betraying two members of Nelson Mandela’s guerrilla army in return for about $3,000. Richardson entered the hearing room wearing a formal green suit, with chains clanking around his ankles and a miniature soccer ball in his hands. ‘We used to torture youths in the manner the Boers [white Afrikaaners] used to torture freedom fighters,” he said, referring to the Mandela club. They “threw Stompie in the air seven times and let him hit the floor.” He said Madikizela-Mandela “was sitting watching us. We kicked him like a ball.” Richardson said he killed Stompie, as well as two other alleged informers, by slitting their throats with the blade of garden shears. He claimed Madikizela-Mandela ordered the killings, as well as that of a young woman, Kuki Zwane. Madikizela-Mandela retorted that the charges were an example of Richardson’s “lunacy.”

Richardson’s evidence contradicted that of chief state pathologist Patricia Klepp. Tapping the side of her neck above her string of pearls, Klepp said Stompie had been stabbed there three times as Cebekhulu claimed, but had not had his throat slit as Richardson maintained. Madikizela-Mandela’s lawyer pointed out that Richardson had not incriminated his former boss during his trial, and alleged that Richardson turned on her only because he hoped to gain amnesty from the commission.

Madikizela-Mandela admitted that the football club members continued to wear their uniforms after they were supposedly disbanded—on direct orders of Nelson, her jailed husband, in 1987—and that she travelled with them throughout 1989. She also housed them in rooms at the back of her large home. But she said she was not responsible for their actions. “They led their own lives at the back and I had my own problems to deal with,” she said.

Among the few witnesses with no apparent ulterior motives were the father of Lolo Sono and the mother of Siboniso Shabalala, two youths who disappeared in late 1988. The two parents begged her to tell them what happened to their children. Nicodemus Sono had last seen his son, badly beaten, in Madikizela-Mandela’s Volkswagen van: “His face was bruised, it was puffed as if it had been crushed against a wall.” Sono said Madikizela-Mandela told him his son was a police informer. “She said, ‘I’m taking the dog away. The movement will see what to do,’ ” Sono testified. Richardson said he killed both boys on Madikizela-Mandela’s orders, because she believed the youths were informers.

For the Soweto community, the greatest

loss linked to Madikizela-Mandela was the murder of Abu-Baker Asvat, a revered medical doctor in the township. He and Madikizela-Mandela had built a clinic in the remote town of Brandfort after the apartheid government banished her there from 1977 to 1985. Cebekhulu claimed that Madikizela-Mandela had Asvat killed because the doctor refused to corroborate her tale that Cebekhulu had been raped by Verryn. Zakhele Mbatha, one of the two men convicted of the Asvat murder, said he was paid $5,000

by Madikizela-Mandela to carry out the crime. Like Richardson, he did not make the claim during his own trial. Madikizela-Mandela said Mbatha was lying to get amnesty.

Madikizela-Mandela’s main defender was Paul Erasmus, a former security branch officer. He told the commission that many of the allegations against Madikizela-Mandela stemmed from a 1980s disinformation campaign in which he tried to create the impression that Madikizela-Mandela lived a decadent lifestyle and was “running rampant in the townships.” He said Madikizela-Mandela played into his hands with her notorious statement in April, 1986, that “together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and necklaces we shall liberate this country.” Erasmus said there was no further need for his smear campaign as she was “digging her own grave, anyway.” Richardson and Falati claimed Erasmus had been Madikizela-Mandela’s lover and that she was a police informer. She replied that the charge was as ridiculous as the old apartheid campaign to portray her as Desmond Tutu’s lover.

Several members of the commission, which includes lawyers, clergy, civil rights activists and others, expressed incredulity at Madikizela-Mandela’s broad conspiracy theory. “I’m surprised that you think Lolo Sono’s father joined in what you called ‘the charade,’ ” said commissioner Yasmin Sooka, quaking with anger. “If your evidence is to be believed, then everyone else is lying.” Replied Madikizela-Mandela: “It is true—most of the witnesses who testified here were lying.”

In his closing remarks, Tutu tried to bring about a reconciliation between MadikizelaMandela and her accusers. He noted the pressures that may have pushed her over the edge. “She was a tremendous stalwart of our struggle, an icon of liberation who was banned, harassed, under surveillance, banished, her husband away serving a life sentence, she had to bring up two young girls.” But Tutu said South Africa was struggling “to establish a new, a different dispensation, characterized by new morality.” Swallowing back tears, he urged her to “stand up and say there are things that went wrong and I don’t knowwhy they went wrong... and to say, I’m sorry. You are a great person and you don’t know how your greatness would be enhanced if you would say, Sorry.” Then Tutu’s voice dropped to a whisper: “I beg you.”

In reply, Madikizela-Mandela expressed her regrets to the Asvat and Seipei families, but laid the ultimate blame on the apartheid government. “For that part of those painful years when things went horribly wrong and we were aware that there were factors that led to that,” she said, “for that I am deeply sorry.” It was hardly a ringing apology. But it was about what could be expected from a woman who built a political career on defiance.

KATE DUNN