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Mandela Affair Shocks, Baffles S. Africa Blacks

February 18, 1989|SCOTT KRAFT | Times Staff Writer

SOWETO, South Africa — The word went down hard in South Africa's largest black township, where symbols of liberation are still rare and revered.

"It's a blow to us, I'll tell you," Rebecca Mofutsane, a Soweto office worker, said Friday. "We had admired her, called her 'mother of the nation.' Now the 'mother' is killing the people of the nation? It is terrible."

The denunciation this week of Winnie Mandela by her own people in the anti-apartheid movement, triggered by a murder investigation involving her and her bodyguards, has left her reputation in tatters and millions of black South Africans baffled.

The affair has not seriously damaged the anti-apartheid movement. The wife of jailed nationalist Nelson R. Mandela was more a symbol than a grass-roots leader.

But most analysts agree that Winnie Mandela's fall has greatly tarnished the movement's image overseas, where South African politics is still often seen through the prism of populist black leaders.

And Winnie Mandela's troubles have handed the white minority-led government plenty of opportunities to remind the country's 5 million whites of what it has been saying all along about Nelson Mandela's outlawed African National Congress: that a country ruled by people such as Winnie Mandela would be a barbarous place indeed.

In an effort at damage control Thursday, the leading anti-apartheid coalition and the largest black labor federation took the unusual step of disowning her and scathingly criticizing her.

The move, which effectively banishes her in her own community, had been considered for months. It was finally triggered by the death of 14-year-old Stompie Mokhetsi Seipie, who commanded a group of 1,500 ghetto children in Tumahole township.

Seipie was one of four young blacks abducted and beaten at the Mandela home by members of the 30-man Mandela United soccer team, which serves as a bodyguard for Winnie Mandela and has been widely condemned by anti-apartheid leaders, according to the police. The authorities have opened a murder investigation.

With that, "She exhausted the sympathy for herself as a tragic hero," Anton Harber, co-editor of the anti-apartheid Weekly Mail, said in Friday's issue of the paper.

In Soweto, the sprawling township outside Johannesburg, people have been shocked by the allegations of murder and beatings, and Winnie Mandela has been shunned by former associates. A few still think the government is trying to frame her, but the more widespread feeling is that she has been misbehaving for some time.

"It's hard to believe she could possibly stoop that low," said Wilkie Khambule, principal of Pace Community College. "But it won't affect the struggle. That's too deeply rooted in the silent masses."

Mark Swilling, an expert in black politics at the Center for Policy Studies, said that Winnie Mandela was a symbolic figure in anti-apartheid circles, but never a political leader.

"She had delusions of grandeur," said Swilling, who had her as an adult student at the University of Witwatersrand. "She thought she was going to resolve all of South Africa's problems by standing on a platform, glorifying the name of Mandela and expanding her ego. But she never organized a street committee."

Swilling and others believe that Winnie Mandela's problems will cause minimal damage to the anti-apartheid struggle. With virtually all political meetings and rallies banned by the government, the nationalist movement has become less dependent on high-profile leaders as a galvanizing force, he said.

But the damage will be much greater internationally, especially in the United States and Europe, analysts say.

"The West thinks of politics in terms of high-profile individuals," Swilling said. "And when one of those individuals falls from grace, it causes confusion and tarnishes the image."

That was one of the reasons the 2-million-member United Democratic Front, which is closely aligned with the outlawed African National Congress, took steps this week to distance itself from Winnie Mandela while at the same time reaffirming its support for her husband, the ideological leader of the ANC who has been imprisoned for the past 27 years as a saboteur. (Nelson Mandela, who rarely issues statements from prison, has remained silent on the matter.)

By denouncing Winnie Mandela, the movement also hopes to blunt government attempts to sully the ANC's reputation. Yet her problems present an inviting political opportunity long denied the government.

The government, which has created a system of racial separation and denied the black majority a vote in national affairs, tried for years to silence Winnie Mandela. She was detained without charge, kept in solitary confinement and, in 1977, banished for eight years to a rural village.

But when her stature at home and abroad continued to grow, the government decided to leave her alone rather than increase the bad publicity. It turned out to be a prescient decision.

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