JOHANNESBURG -- When you sit within close range of Winnie Mandela, you realize what a big woman she is. As in big and strong. You suddenly believe, for example, that she truly could have single-handedly caused a policeman to break his neck, as she has bragged. And you shift that particular story out of the long column of myths about this "Mother of the Nation" over to the list of that which is possibly factual.

But so many things -- from the grotesque to the bizarre to the saintly -- have been alleged about this Mandela, that it's not safe to even guess about their veracity. She's a woman of heroic qualities and tragic flaws, of pristine political goals and slick street smarts. Of huge heart and bitter contempt. The inconsistencies don't seem to bother her.

"I just don't give a damn anymore," says Mandela. She flashes her eyes in that coquettish way of hers, which would be charming if her eyes were not so watery, so weary-looking. Instead, the effect is eerie. She laughs hoarsely.

It's well after noon on one of the last Saturdays before the election, and Mandela has just sat down for lunch at a roadside fast-food joint called Wimpy. Her formidable fists are balled up on the table in front of her. She's wearing cheap, dangling earrings and multi-jeweled rings. Her full-length, tailored African dress was made to order in Ghana. She is stout these days, but her face is still smooth and much younger-looking than her 59 years.

Across from Mandela sit two journalists who have been trailing her across the flat void of the Eastern Transvaal, from township to township, as she campaigns for a seat in Parliament. Mandela's press person has promised an interview over lunch, but when notebooks are pulled out, she laughs again.

"I just hate the press," she says. "I am where I am today without the press. After all the damaging stories they tried to write, I don't need the press."

So, no interview.

Up until several months ago, many people -- especially Westerners -- thought Mandela had destroyed herself politically. Following charges that she misused funds from the African National Congress, she was stripped of her office in that organization's Women's League in 1992. Then she was convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory to an assault in her house that was connected to the 1988 death of a 13-year-old activist named Stompie Seipei. And two years ago, amid rampant rumors of her infidelity, Nelson Mandela announced that he was separating from his wife "for personal reasons."

Now, however, Winnie Mandela is back with a vengeance. Every South African who cast a national ballot this week for the ANC -- which is widely expected to come out ahead -- effectively cast a vote for her. In December she was voted president of the same organization that disciplined her -- the ANC Women's League. She placed high enough on the ANC's Candidates List -- a kind of popularity poll conducted at the grass-roots level -- to be considered by many a likely pick for a cabinet position in the new government. And everywhere she goes on the stump, it seems, she is celebrated.

"Since we have forgiven the National Party {the architects of apartheid}, she deserves to be forgiven too," says Paul Moropa, 23, an unemployed resident of the shantytown on the edge of Delmas, where Mandela was more than an hour late for her first campaign stop of the day.

It is with such young people, especially, that Mandela is strongest. Politicos say she speaks their language, knows their problems and taps into the power of their despair. When she takes to a stage and exhorts a crowd to "Roar, young lions, roar," they respond.

Many other giants of the ANC have long since moved to the predominantly white suburbs, but Mandela still lives in Soweto -- the 'hood, as it were. Granted, she lives in a million-dollar house. But still, she's there. She shows up for the funerals that the TV cameras don't cover. And people take notice of things like that.

"She made a comeback precisely because the ANC is a grass-roots organization," says Pallo Jordan, the ANC head of information. "You can be 'washed up' politically as far as all sorts of people might be concerned. But if you're not washed up at the grass roots, you're not washed up."

Saths Cooper, a former head of AZAPO (Azanian People's Organization) who runs a psychological trauma center for families who lose members to township violence, says: "She has not admonished them {the youth}. ... They see her as taking up cudgels on their behalf. She has appeared in crisis situations, where people have been excluded, dumped -- the real wretched of the Earth -- more than any other national figure. She articulates their issues quickly, and young people want quick action.

"I think after {Nelson} Mandela, Winnie is clearly the person to be contended with. ... She's not going to be a loser."

'The Sum of Her Contradictions'

This month's issue of Essence magazine contains a seven-page story about Winnie Mandela that was written by South African freelancer Nokwanda Sithole, who quotes Mandela liberally.

"I have heard that she gives the impression that she met with me," Mandela says. "She didn't interview me at all. In fact, the matter is before the lawyers."

Consulted by phone in her New York office, Essence's Audrey Edwards, who edited the article, seems baffled by Mandela's claim.

"It's not true," Edwards says. "I know we talked to Winnie while we were doing the piece. She supplied us with the photos. ... And we have a good relationship with Winnie, which is why this is so strange. She has been an Essence award winner. {Essence Editor in Chief} Susan {Taylor} has been in her home. ... It was a fact-checked story based on an interview. ... There must be something else {bothering her} that really doesn't have anything to do with us."

The story, which suggests Mandela is "the sum of her own contradictions," revives rumors that she developed a drinking problem during the eight years she was banished to the small town of Brandfort, in the Orange Free State, 200 miles away from her Soweto home.

It praises the "unbreaking, beautiful wife of the jailed elder of South African liberation" for her stalwart convictions, but it also reminds readers that she once promoted "necklaces and matchsticks" -- gas-soaked burning tires around opponents' necks -- as political weapons of choice. It recounts the violent history of the "football club" Mandela organized, which many saw as simply a gang of thugs. And finally, the piece names lawyer Dali Mpofu as Mandela's alleged lover, and quotes her calling Nelson Mandela a "deserting husband."

The author says she has no clue why Mandela is attempting to discredit the article.

"She would know that I recorded all our interviews, and that this would certainly get back to me," says Sithole. "She's talking rubbish, absolute rubbish. ... If there's a personal problem, then you can't kick up a political storm because of it."

Sithole, 30, refers to the word going around the political in-crowd here that the writer and Mpofu, 31, are engaged. There is speculation that the gossip is what really has Mandela miffed.

There is no engagement, however, says Sithole. "About three months ago, the rumor just came up in Johannesburg. Those things happen in this city. You just ride it and let it pass.

"I'm puzzled, though," adds Sithole, who says Mandela has always known that she and Mpofu were friends. "My relationship with Dali is older than hers, I think. ... I would be surprised if she started responding badly now."

Her Roots and His Roots

The personal has always been political for Mandela, according to a new biography by Emma Gilbey, an English journalist who covered Mandela's kidnapping trial.

She was born in a rural southeastern corner of South Africa to a father who had wanted a boy, and a mother who was ostracized because she was half-white. Her mother's blood had been "polluted" by her European father, a settler who had cohabited with a Xhosa woman. Mandela's mother had pale skin, blue eyes and long red hair that she kept hidden, Gilbey writes. Nevertheless, her appearance was a constant reminder to Mandela's people, the Pondos, of the land they had lost to the white man. Mandela's paternal grandmother was particularly hard on her daughter-in-law -- to the extent that Mandela would later refer to her grandmother as the first racist she ever knew.

"Her childhood," Gilbey writes, "was a blistering inferno of racial hatred."

Nelson Mandela's childhood, which was also rural, was kinder. "Like Winnie, the stories Mandela heard as a child had a lasting influence on his political development. Some were of white injustice -- though told with less festering hatred than Winnie would experience. ... {I}t was the description of the structure and organization of early African societies which fascinated {Nelson} Mandela. Always a thoughtful and analytical child, he developed a passion for democratic order, rather than a desire for vengeance against past grievances."

That is how Gilbey explains Nelson Mandela's emergence from 27 years in prison with a strong but gentle demeanor, compared with Winnie Mandela's continued combativeness.

But Gilbey's analysis is a warped one, according to Saths Cooper, who spent more than five of the nine years he was imprisoned for nonviolent political acts in the same cellblock with Nelson Mandela, and who has known Winnie Mandela for 20 years.

It's wishful thinking about the role that ethnic roots and aspirations have played, says Cooper, who earned a doctorate in psychology at Boston University as a Fulbright scholar after his prison release.

"It's suggesting that this country has done well by apartheid, that the apartheid mission had something in it that went all right in the application, by harking back, by saying Nelson Mandela's whole orientation has been this vision of democracy and tribal chiefs and so on. That's bull{expletive}. He ran away from that system."

Indeed, when Nelson Mandela came to Johannesburg during its wartime boom years, he was running from a village where his bride would have been chosen by his elders, and where he could have been a chief himself. Furthermore, says Cooper, Winnie Mandela has always had supporters as well as opponents on both sides of the racial divide.

"I think she's been a victim of circumstances that have taken their toll," says Cooper. "She, more than anybody else, will acknowledge that -- what it's like to be a young mother with a suckling babe, and have another one born while her husband's in prison. ... Winnie was one of the few people who kept alive the remains of Nelson Mandela and the ANC during those terrible dark years of crackdown. For that she paid a terrible price -- banned, banished, deported."

A Life of 'Trials'

Her Xhosa name -- Nomzamo -- means "trial."

Winnie was 23 when she met Nelson, and was so "staggeringly beautiful," Gilbey writes, that "men would stand and stare as she walked down the street." Nelson was nearly 40 then and separated from his first wife. Already a celebrated trial lawyer and political leader, Nelson was also a patron of the Johannesburg school for social workers that Winnie attended. The two bonded immediately, and married within a year. Less than three years later, he went underground, and the following year he was imprisoned.

"I had so little time to love him," Winnie wrote in her 1984 autobiography, "Part of My Soul Went With Him."

"And that love has survived all these years of separation. ... Perhaps if I'd had time to know him better I might have found a hell of a lot of faults, but I only had time to love him and long for him all the time."

Nelson's jailers prohibited him from seeing his daughters -- Zinzi and Zenani -- while they were between the ages of 2 and 16.

Winnie visited whenever she could, which wasn't often. She was arrested, restricted, banned or banished 24 times between 1958 and 1985. She lost count of other times she was hauled into court for small charges that amounted to nothing but harassment.

While banished to Brandfort's bleak township, Winnie wrote this to a friend, on May 24, 1979:

"The empty days drag on, one like the other. ... The solitude is deadly, the grey matchbook shacks so desolate simply stare at you as lifeless as the occupants, who form a human chain of frustration as they pass next to my window; from the moment the bar opens until it closes at 8 p.m., they are paralytic drunk; schoolchildren who find nothing to eat when they return from pseudo-schools simply join their parents there. ... Social life is the nightly raids and funerals! How grim that must sound, yet there's something so purifying about exile, each minute is a reminder that blackness alone is a commitment in our sick society."

Awaiting the Final Votes

The votes are being counted now. Only when the final tally is in -- which could take another day or so -- and the elections have been certified as free and fair, will the probable president, Nelson Mandela, make concrete plans for his cabinet. In the meantime, there is plenty of betting that in addition to having a seat in Parliament Winnie Mandela will also have a cabinet position -- perhaps as minister of health and welfare.

"That's assuming she even wants a position in the cabinet," says the ANC's Jordan. "She might not want one, because she's a grass-roots person, and she might feel that's where she wants to work."

Indeed, as Mandela campaigned in the shantytowns, she made clear her allegiance to those outside the circles of power. If the ANC fails to keep its promises to the people, she said, "Please come and fetch me from Parliament. I will come and lead you against my own government."

It's not even settled yet how many members the cabinet will have. Somewhere between 12 and 20, says Jordan. And once the executive power is divvied up according to the strength of various parties' showings, constitutional provisions and the desire to start a government of national unity on a good and generous footing, Mandela may well end up without a seat.

Not a problem, says Cooper. "She's still young." From now on, there will always be a next time around.

Meanwhile Mandela, ever one to catch her watchers off guard, spoke about her husband and their marriage during a British interview televised Tuesday, on the first day of voting here, saying, "Our love for each other has never been dented."

And to the two journalists trailing her, who are African American women, she says, "As far as I'm concerned, you're my sisters, okay? I'll talk to you girls -- but as friends -- no interview."

Then, on the last night of voting, Mandela popped up on Dan Rather's "CBS Evening News."