Accused of involvement in murder and torture committed by her former bodyguards, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela publicly defended herself for the first time today, boldly telling South Africa's truth commission that all allegations against her are "fabrications."
In nearly 10 hours of combative testimony, the former wife of President Nelson Mandela lambasted her detractors, saying most who testified against her told "lies." She criticized the government, said security forces are surveilling her and accused the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of trying to derail her bid for high office.
Three dozen witnesses testified in nine days of hearings that told of a dozen murders, several assaults and abductions, and a general reign of terror associated with Madikizela-Mandela and her protection squad -- euphemistically named the Mandela United Football Club -- during the waning years of the black struggle to end the white minority government's policy of racial separation, known as apartheid.
But after a day of denying even the most minor allegations against her, Madikizela-Mandela, 63, offered no hand of reconciliation to assembled victims of her protection force -- until Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the truth commission chairman, begged her to do so.
Invoking a historic bond of the Mandela and Tutu family names, Tutu said that something in Madikizela-Mandela's once-great life had gone "horribly, badly wrong. I beg you, I beg you, I beg you. Please. You are a great person. You don't know how your greatness would be enhanced if you said Sorry.' "
Silence spread through the packed hall of the Johannesburg Institute of Social Services, where the hearings were held. After a long pause, Madikizela-Mandela finally responded.
She apologized to the families of her club's most brutally slain victims. They include Moketsi "Stompie" Seipei, 14, a suspected police informer who was beaten nearly to death at her home in 1988, then taken outside and fatally stabbed in the neck.
"I am saying it is true: Things went horribly wrong," Madikizela-Mandela said, the sting of the day-long hearing absent from her voice. "For that I am deeply sorry."
Madikizela-Mandela's past as an anti-apartheid heroine, combined with her aspirations to edge closer to the levers of power, have put the accusations leveled against her before the truth commission onto some of the most hotly debated terrain of the new South Africa.
As her defiant stand today demonstrated, she has come to symbolize for many the fire of the anti-apartheid movement, while for others she has raised the uncomfortable specter of questionable conduct during the chaos of the late 1980s, when the black struggle against white minority rule was at a fever pitch.
For that period, and the abuses committed in the Madikizela-Mandela name, the truth commission sought some kind of accountability, a major goal of its two-year mission to bring out abuses by blacks and whites alike during the anti-apartheid conflict.
But in testimony broadcast live, Madikizela-Mandela took no responsibility for her security force, whose members lived on her property in the black township of Soweto, near Johannesburg. They allegedly tortured suspected informers and plotted a series of murders that struck fear into Soweto's heart.
The truth commission's findings on Madikizela-Mandela and her now-defunct security force will be issued next year as part of the body's overall report. The commission has no powers to prosecute, but can offer amnesty to those who seek it and offer full confessions of their deeds in exchange. Conversely, it can make recommendations to the courts in cases where prosecution seems warranted.
On this score, Madikizela-Mandela could become the focus of renewed calls for prosecution. She has not applied for amnesty.
Ebrahim Asvat, brother of Abu-Baker Asvat, a physician whose 1989 murder factored prominently in the hearings, expressed faith in the commission's ability to ferret out the truth. Two men convicted in the murder testified this week that Madikizela-Mandela paid them to kill the doctor. Witnesses said Asvat examined the brutally beaten Seipei.
Of such claims, Madikizela-Mandela said, "They are ludicrous, of course."
Of Seipei's death -- which was set in motion at her home -- she claimed no knowledge, saying she read about it in the newspapers.
Although her part in the hearings has concluded, the Madikizela-Mandela controversy is by no means over. She has mounted a long-shot campaign for the deputy presidency of the ruling African National Congress in voting to take place later this month.
But the ANC Women's League, of which she is president, began waffling this week on its nomination of her for the high position she is seeking. And the ANC establishment, including her ex-husband, has mounted a concerted drive to get party branches behind a candidate slate that excludes her.
Madikizela-Mandela suggested today that the hearings into her past were timed to taint her campaign. But Alex Boraine, the commission's deputy chairman, pointed out that Madikizela-Mandela herself demanded public hearings. The truth body had wanted only to question her in private.
What emerged was an ugly portrait of what has been an open secret of the anti-apartheid struggle: that while Mandela was serving 27 years of political imprisonment, his wife -- once known as "Mother of the Nation" -- surrounded herself with enforcers who acted under the Mandela name and became a law unto themselves. At issue was whether Madikizela-Mandela knew of, sanctioned, ordered or helped carry out some of the crimes the club committed. On all counts, Madikizela-Mandela issued denials. She also accused anti-apartheid leaders of the 1980s, who tried to negotiate with her to stop her security squad's actions, of lying to the truth commission about their efforts to bring her into line.
"If your evidence is to be believed today, then everybody else who testified is lying," said Commissioner Yasmin Sooka. Madikizela-Mandela replied, "Yes, it is true that most of the witnesses who testified here were lying." CAPTION: Joyce Seipei, left, mother of slain 14-year-old Moketsi "Stompie" Seipei, greets Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at her hearing in Johannesburg. CAPTION: Supporters surround Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, center, after her testimony. She denied knowledge of crimes allegedly committed by her protection squad. CAPTION: Moketsi Seipei, 14, was beaten at Mandela's home, then killed.