Kidnapping,betrayal,murder,torture - Mamma Africa Gets Back to Business

Article excerpt

Byline: ANN LESLIE

YOU'D think that the woman who's been denounced in her own country's Press as 'The Frankenmother of the Nation' would be finished by now.

You'd think that a drunken, corrupt, promiscuous, somewhat deranged and thoroughly arrogant 65-year-old woman who's been convicted of kidnapping a poor black boy (later found dead) . . . who's been heavily implicated in the torture and murder of others . . . who's been embroiled in the siphoning-off of charitable funds for the poor . . . who sashays around in one of her six Mercedes . . . who's built herself a 15-room mansion - while smugly declaring that 'I am proud of my poverty' . . . who's known to have had shady dealings with assorted dodgy diamond dealers and casino owners . . . who's betrayed and humiliated a world icon, her ex-husband, would be (if not in jail for life) at the very least consigned to the dustbin of history.

Ah, but if you thought that, you've clearly never met, as I have, the astonishing Winnie Mandela. She has, as one South African newspaper put it: 'All the guile and cunning of a tapeworm.' Even the apartheid regime's utterly ruthless killer squads believed she was indestructible. Eugene de Kock, the security force's murderer-in-chief (known as 'Prime Evil'), has admitted that, while he and his Afrikaner chums killed lots of black activists, they despaired over Winnie. They were utterly in awe of her: 'You could have thrown her from a height of 30,000ft from an aeroplane and nothing would have happened to her.' And far from being consigned to the dustbin of history, Winnie Mandela is in the running for a Cabinet post in the 'New South Africa'. She was number nine on the African National Congress's party list in yesterday's election landslide.

THABO MBEKI - the austere, pipe-smoking, Yeats-quoting, chess-playing, Sussex University graduate who will be the next president - has chosen to ignore and excuse her crimes. According to him (to the dismay of many ANC activists), her crimes were committed in 'the political atmosphere of the time . . . I am prepared to stand by her'. She has, he said, been 'unfairly crucified'.

Oh really? The fact is that her most implacable 'crucifiers' have been poor black mothers from the sprawling township of Soweto whose families she and her gang of young thugs, the so-called Mandela United Football Club, terrorised for years. In Soweto I saw graffiti denouncing the 'The Mother of the Nation' as 'The Mugger

of the Nation'. One former political prisoner, who spent 13 years in the notorious Robben Island prison, sighed when I asked him about her chances of a Cabinet post this week: 'No matter what she did for the struggle, she should not be in government.

No one who is corrupt or has done things against their own people should be given an official job.' So how has this woman not only survived, but even prospered mightily, in this 'New South Africa'? After all, the ANC has been deeply embarrassed by her antics (before the first all-race elections in 1994, one of its stars told me that 'we've even tried getting her locked up in a sanatorium on mental health grounds').

WHEN she says, as she frequently does, that 'I am the ANC', the ANC hierarchy reacts privately with horrified groans over their fine malt whiskies and Cuban cigars.

Yet the soon-to-be president Mbeki (the president, Winnie's 80-year-old ex-husband Nelson, is retiring) has endorsed her. He is usually described (including by me) as 'enigmatic'.

What this means is that we have no idea what he's going to do, what really motivates this pixie-faced man behind all the silky charm, the dapper suits and the skilful rhetoric about an 'African renaissance'. (As one cynic puts it, 'where was the "naissance" in the first place?') And he was always disturbingly 'enigmatic' on the question of Winnie.

Surely, we all thought, he won't support this loosest of loose cannons on the ANC deck? …