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  • South Africa Report


    Winnie Mandela's Role in Mayhem Probed

    By Lynne Duke
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Monday, November 24 1997; Page A01

    The year was 1986, at the height of the battle against white-minority rule, when hope and terror stirred in every black heart in the township of Soweto. Children manned protest barricades. Mothers harbored resistance fighters. Fathers smuggled weapons. And the forces of apartheid were ever-present, ready to burst through any door, to beat, abduct, torture, even kill.

    Then, suddenly, in a corner of Soweto known as Orlando West, a new form of terror emerged. Euphemistically, it was called the Mandela United Football Club, but in reality, it was the bodyguard squad of its founder: Winnie Mandela. An icon of the anti-apartheid struggle during the 27 years that her husband, Nelson Mandela, was a political prisoner, Winnie Mandela now was leading a band of rogues. Mothers complained that their sons were being hounded. One such mother, a local activist named Dudu Chili, learned that Mandela's club was after her 19-year-old son, Sibusiso.

    "When I asked her, `Why is the football club hunting my son?' she said: `Because he's not in the football club, obviously they would think he's a sellout,' " Chili recalled in a recent interview. Mandela's words were chilling. For in Soweto in the 1980s, to be branded a "sellout" of the struggle was the kiss of death.

    In an onslaught against the Chili family, the club allegedly slashed the throat of one of Sibusiso's close friends. They firebombed Chili's home, killing her young niece. Finally, when they tried to get Sibusiso, a melee left one club member dead and Sibusiso convicted of murder.

    Winnie Mandela's role in this mayhem is one of the haunting questions of the liberation struggle. On Monday, a decade of allegations, rumor, innuendo and conflicting sworn statements will reach a crescendo as South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission begins a week of public hearings on the activities of the Mandela United Football Club. At least 12 slayings will be examined, including those involving the Chili family.

    Two questions -- devastating in their asking -- are central to the hearings: Did Winnie Mandela order her club to kill? Did she kill, as well?

    Various witnesses from the football club, whose credibility in some cases is suspect, have alleged that the answer to both questions is yes. These witnesses will testify this week, along with victims like Chili. High-ranking officials of the ruling African National Congress also will testify to explain Winnie Mandela's historic status in the party and their efforts to rein her in when she became wayward. And members of the apartheid-era security apparatus are expected to discuss the use of spies inside Mandela's football club to discredit and manipulate her.

    Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, 61, who has resumed using her maiden name since her divorce from President Mandela last year, will be the central witness. She has steadfastly denied the allegations. The truth commission can offer her amnesty from prosecution -- but only if she applies for it, which she has refused to do.

    In a rare interview, she suggested to the Star newspaper last week that the renewed allegations are an attempt to discredit her and thwart her political ambitions. "The idea was not to establish any truth, because there is no truth to be established there in all those lies," she said.

    And she complained that the truth body has shown more leniency toward the white leaders who were responsible for the majority of the apartheid-era human rights abuses the truth commission is studying.

    The commission, established to investigate abuses committed on all sides under apartheid, is not a prosecutorial body, so Madikizela-Mandela will be found neither innocent nor guilty. But in the court of public opinion, the hearings will reignite the long-simmering debate about how a once-revered leader, seen internationally as a symbol of a people's quest for justice, became embroiled in so much that was murderous.

    She is hated and feared by those who lived under her football club's terror. She is viewed with bitterness by those who are confounded by her political staying power despite several scandals over money, men and murder. She is tolerated by those grown weary of the persistent controversies that surround her. She is loved by many of the poorest of the poor, who see her as a champion, as well as by many of those who believe that the ends of the anti-apartheid struggle justified the means. And many feel gratitude: Because she bore the Mandela name and refused to bow to the apartheid regime, she suffered years of harassment, banning orders, arrests and torture.

    So complex is her role in society that the allegations against her and the debate about their veracity have been kept quiet among her colleagues and have never been aired officially in public -- until now.

    "Things like this, whether there was a truth commission or not, these issues were bound to come back," said Murphy Morobe, a former leader of the United Democratic Front, an anti-apartheid coalition that was a surrogate for the then-banned ANC during the 1980s and which pushed to ostracize Madikizela-Mandela when her club's misdeeds became known.

    Morobe, who heads the nation's Fiscal and Financial Commission, is fully aware of the divided domestic and international opinion about Madikizela-Mandela. When asked to shed light on that phenomenon, he would say only this: "The closer you are to the fire, you feel the fire differently."

    Probing Murders

    Madikizela-Mandela's appearance before the truth commission was triggered by the tearful pleas heard last year from parents whose sons disappeared while they were involved with her football club. The panel has dredged up several baffling murder cases in which Madikizela-Mandela's name figures prominently.

    Among the most explosive is the case of Moketsi "Stompie" Seipei, a 14-year-old anti-apartheid activist. In December 1988, he was abducted from a local church along with three other boys. They were severely beaten at Madikizela-Mandela's Soweto home; accused of being a police informer, Seipei was beaten the worst. A doctor friend of Madikizela-Mandela, Abu-Baker Asvat, examined the boy and advised Mandela that Seipei would die if not treated immediately, witnesses have told the press. Seipei's body was found in a field in January 1989 with a stab wound in the neck. Asvat later was shot to death in his medical office.

    The football club's "coach," Jerry Richardson, was convicted of Seipei's murder in 1990. In 1991, Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault in connection with Seipei's case, though the assault conviction was set aside on appeal.

    In recent months, new claims have surfaced that could change the picture. In press interviews, Richardson now claims that Madikizela-Mandela ordered him to kill Seipei, and one of the two men convicted in the Asvat murder has claimed that Mandela hired him to do the job.

    But another witness, Katiza Cebekhulu, has taken the allegations much further and is considered the pivotal figure in the truth commission hearing. A codefendant in Madikizela-Mandela's 1991 trial, Cebekhulu disappeared before he could testify.

    Now, from exile in Britain, Cebekhulu has claimed that he saw Madikizela-Mandela stab Seipei. The allegation is contained in a recent book, "Katiza's Journey," written by British journalist Fred Bridgland and copyrighted by Emma Nicholson, a former member of the British Parliament.

    Last week, in a published interview, Madikizela-Mandela called Cebekhulu a "lunatic" and a "liar" and said Nicholson suffers from "mad cow" disease.

    To Dudu Chili, the Seipei and Asvat cases -- plus the horrors that befell her own family -- are evidence that the woman once known as the "mother of the nation" had become something else entirely.

    Among the attacks involving Chili's family that will be probed at this week's hearings is that against Lerothodi Ikaneng, a defector from the football club who went to the Chili family for help and was a friend of Chili's son Sibusiso. In January 1989, football club members allegedly cut Ikaneng's throat with garden shears, nearly killing him.

    In February 1989, the club went after Sibusiso, attacking him in the street in Soweto. He managed, with help from other youths, to fend off the onslaught. But a club member, Maxwell Madondo, was killed, and Sibusiso was charged with murder and convicted.

    Later that month, in a crime for which a footballer was convicted, the Chili home was shot at and firebombed, killing Finkie Msomi, Chili's 13-year-old niece.

    The "Winnie Problem"

    The ANC learned that it had a "Winnie problem" in 1989, following years of mounting tensions. Angry youths had firebombed her home in retaliation for football club deeds. Activists and parents were up in arms about disappearances and beatings. The UDF, the ANC surrogate organization, formed the Mandela Crisis Committee. It investigated the situation, questioned youths being held at the Mandela home, and demanded that she produce Seipei. At the time, however, he was lying unidentified in a morgue.

    Unable to resolve the situation without consultation with the ANC leadership in exile, the Crisis Committee wrote to ANC President Oliver Tambo in Lusaka, Zambia. The Crisis Committee told Tambo it was planning to ostracize Mandela, to no longer give her a platform, to prevent her from "creating an impression that she speaks on behalf of the people."

    "She seems to think she is above the community! She shows utter contempt for both the Crisis Committee and the community," the message to Tambo said. The committee asked Tambo to advise it on how to deal with "this new ghastly situation that is developing before our very eyes."

    Tambo advised Mandela in messages sent from Zambia that she must disband the football club, according to testimony before the truth commission in May by Thabo Mbeki, who is now deputy president of both the South African government and the ANC.

    "These were not structures of the ANC," said Mbeki, who also was exiled in Zambia. "We felt that the behavior of the Mandela Football Club and people associated with it was harmful."

    But whether these messages got through is not clear. The situation inside South Africa was utter chaos. The ANC, as part of its campaign to topple apartheid, had vowed to render the white-ruled state ungovernable, and the government responded by cracking down with thousands of arrests and years of emergency rule. In the process, segments of the liberation movement itself became ungovernable and increasingly radicalized. Madikizela-Mandela became the symbol of this radicalization. Her constituency was the young "comrades" whose agitation had hobbled apartheid and was about to bring it to its knees.

    When the country's last apartheid president, Frederik W. de Klerk, bowed to that pressure by ending the ban on black political groups and releasing key political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela in 1990, Madikizela-Mandela was in the spotlight, by her husband's side.

    The ANC swept to victory in the first all-races election in 1994 after a campaign in which Madikizela-Mandela played a key role. Elected to Parliament on the ANC slate, she also served as a deputy minister, until her husband -- from whom she then was separated -- fired her the following year.

    This year, she was reelected president of ANC Women's League, which has nominated her for the ANC deputy presidency to be decided in party voting next month. Should she win, she could ultimately become deputy president of the country as well.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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