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  • South Africa Report


    Spotlight on Mandela Casts Shadow on Nation

    By Lynne Duke
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Saturday, November 29 1997; Page A01

    The cast of characters ranged from the sublime to the profane. The kaleidoscope of testimony spanned fact, fiction and spectacularly vicious rumor. In five days of testimony by 25 witnesses, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has attempted to uncover the truth about murders and other abuses committed by the 1980s bodyguard squad of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the role that South Africa's most famous woman played in those abuses.

    But in plumbing the depths of the depravity that coursed through the squad, the truth commission has unearthed a series of other truths that South Africa is uncomfortable exposing. The Madikizela-Mandela hearings, which continue into next week and culminate with her own testimony, have become a window onto some of the deepest weaknesses, compromises and moral conflicts inherited from the apartheid era of white-minority rule as well as from the black struggle against it.

    Hundreds of spectators, victims, politicos and journalists have gathered at the Johannesburg Institute of Social Services each day this week for the sadly sobering spectacle of this truth-seeking process. Madikizela-Mandela's character is some of the most contested terrain in the nation. People want to know: Did she give orders for her club to kill? Did she kill anyone herself? Or is she being persecuted for her fire, her independence? The truth commission is probing these questions, and one day, perhaps, the truth will be known.

    But the moral scrutiny to which Madikizela-Mandela is being subjected is being shared far and wide. The truth panel has asked hard questions about powerful figures around her and why they could not or did not act more forcefully to put a brake on her "Mandela United Football Club," the euphemistically named bodyguard squad, and the extent to which delicate political calculations impaired their ability to act.

    This scrutiny is being focused on the ruling African National Congress, led by Madikizela-Mandela's former husband, President Nelson Mandela, who was serving 27 years of political imprisonment at the time her club's abuses were committed. It is focused also on the clergy who helped in the anti-apartheid struggle, and on the law enforcement community that tried to stop black liberation but has now, to a large extent, been absorbed into the new democratic order.

    These conflicts cut to the heart of the ANC, which, a decade after the events in question, is still trying to manage the phenomenon known simply as "Winnie."

    For several days, a central question loomed over the process. It is the question of how leaders, in trying to manage or navigate around Madikizela-Mandela, were affected by her stature as "Mother of the Nation." Finally, on Thursday, truth commissioner Dumisa Ntsebeza, put it straight out.

    "Even as we ask questions of you, we don't put it directly to you," he said in prefacing this most delicate of questions. "You were dealing with a powerful political leader in her own right, as well as the wife of one of the nation's most revered leaders. Did that weigh heavily with you to the point where you were prepared to accept her say-so?"

    Otto Mbangula, a Methodist clergyman involved in efforts to negotiate in one of several crises that surrounded Madikizela-Mandela in the late 1980s, was the only one of those asked who could or would admit what seemed obvious.

    "I think it is true, that what you have described must have been," he said.

    Madikizela-Mandela was the ANC's public face inside the country while the party was banned and in exile during the three decades ending in 1990, and she also was the global symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle. She was tortured by police in several detentions and banned and banished when set free.

    But another symbol emerged in the late 1980s. His name was Moketsi "Stompie" Seipei, a 14-year-old activist, who in death came to symbolize the extent to which something had gone terribly awry in the universe that Madikizela-Mandela inhabited.

    Seipei was one of four youths abducted by the football club from a Soweto church and taken to Madikizela-Mandela's home in late 1988. Seipei wound up dead -- beaten severely, stabbed in the neck, his body found in early 1989. Madikizela-Mandela was convicted in 1991 for his kidnapping, with an accessory to assault conviction thrown out the following year on appeal.

    But back in early 1989, before anyone but his killers knew what had happened to him, rumors coursed through Soweto that such an abduction had occurred. A crisis committee was activated within the United Democratic Front, the internal surrogate for the ANC while the ANC was banned and exiled. The UDF worked under the guidance of ANC leaders in exile, but together these two organizations could not rein in Madikizela-Mandela.

    This week, some of the most prominent politicos of that era, who have become some of the most prominent politicos in the new, attempted to explain their actions. They spoke in the formal language of politicians walking a tightrope. They explained their "negotiations" with Madikizela-Mandela to secure the release of the abducted youths and the constraints placed on their actions because of the fluid security situation of the country, which at that time was under a massive crackdown during yet another state of emergency.

    "We had to be as diplomatic as possible and also be as assertive as possible," said Sydney Mufamadi, a former UDF leader and now the minister of safety and security. "You can understand how difficult it was," he told the truth commission panel.

    But the UDF committee was created in response to an earlier crisis over football club violence, before the boys were abducted. So questions arose this week over whether it did enough, early enough, to try to avert Seipei's death.

    When such a question was put to the committee in a news conference, Frank Chikane, a clergyman from the UDF days and now a top aide to the nation's deputy president, lashed out. "I did everything possible," he said. "I think we achieved what we could achieve. . . . Why should we be accused?"

    The politicians were being accused only mildly compared with the devastating revelation made about a high-ranking member of the football club. He is Jerry Richardson, the so-called "coach" of the football club, who emerged as its leading killer. He was convicted for Seipei's murder and is serving a life sentence in prison. He has been implicated in ordering or participating in several other atrocities.

    But this week, complicating an already complex picture, national Police Commissioner George Fivaz officially revealed for the first time that Richardson was a spy for the apartheid-era police forces. At the top of Madikizela-Mandela's football club sat an apartheid police informer.

    Through this and other revelations, Madikizela-Mandela sat stoically. But there came a point when she was moved to tears. She wept with (or perhaps for) a witness named Charles Zwane.

    He is the convicted murderer of nine people and a self-described but questionable fighter of South Africa's old anti-apartheid struggle. He used to hang around the football club. He carried hand grenades and a machine pistol. But when apartheid's police arrested him in the 1980s, he broke under pressure.

    It wasn't so much the electrodes they attached to his pinkie fingers, he explained. It was the electric current they applied through his toes. He confessed to crimes he now says he did not commit. Today, as he began to tell the truth panel what had happened to him, he broke down in tears.

    Across the room, Madikizela-Mandela broke down, too. Her lips quivered. She removed her glasses and held her face in her hands, while cameras zoomed in to capture the image such rare tears offered. We may never know what she was feeling. The truth of this matter is far from certain. Perhaps that is why many others in the hall cried, too.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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