JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — In a grudging yet stunning eleventh-hour admission, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela told a hushed auditorium here Thursday that "things went horribly wrong" on her watch in the anti-apartheid struggle of the late 1980s, but she denied involvement in any criminal activities.
"I am saying it is true, things went horribly wrong. I fully agree with that," Madikizela-Mandela said in the final session of a nine-day hearing into the Mandela United Football Club, a group of troubled men and boys based in her Soweto home. "And for that part of those painful years, when things went horribly wrong--and we were aware of the fact that there were factors that led to that--for that, I am deeply sorry."
Departing from a carefully scripted day of testimony, Madikizela-Mandela also issued apologies to the families of teenage activist Stompie Seipei and Soweto physician Abu Baker Asvat, both slain in 1989.
Madikizela-Mandela was convicted in 1991 in the kidnapping of Seipei and was implicated in both killings by witnesses appearing the past two weeks before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a government panel delving into apartheid-era crimes.
The surprise overtures by Madikizela-Mandela came after a grueling--and sometimes testy--day of questioning, during which the former wife of President Nelson Mandela methodically denied allegations of murder, torture and other crimes. The commission called the hearings, open to the public upon her insistence, to look into 18 alleged human rights violations involving the notorious soccer club.
Madikizela-Mandela insisted that she had disbanded the team in the late 1980s on instruction of her then-imprisoned husband. But since many of the members continued to wear club uniforms, she said, she was wrongly associated with their criminal activities long after they had left her care. "They were the only decent clothes those children had," she said. "I did not have the resources to buy them new clothes."
When pressed to explain incriminating testimony from more than two dozen witnesses, including Jerry Richardson, a convicted murderer and the club's former soccer coach, Madikizela-Mandela dismissed her accusers as liars, lunatics and apartheid-era collaborators. "Honestly, for me to have to sit here and answer such ridiculous allegations is great pain to me," she complained.
At one point, Yasmin Sooka, an exasperated truth commissioner, incredulously reminded Madikizela-Mandela that for her version of events to be true, "everyone else who testified at this hearing is lying."
Madikizela-Mandela replied matter-of-factly, "Yes, it is true that most of the witnesses who testified here were lying."
Unshakable through nine hours of interrogation by a cast of attorneys and investigators, Madikizela-Mandela broke her stony stance only as the exhaustive session was about to adjourn. Openly frustrated by her refusal to give any ground, truth commission Chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu issued an emotional personal appeal for his longtime friend to come clean.
"I beg you, I beg you, I beg you, please," Tutu said softly. "You are a great person, and you don't know how your greatness would be enhanced if you'd say, 'Sorry, things went wrong. Forgive me.' I beg you."
As the crowded hearing room fell silent, Madikizela-Mandela turned momentarily to her attorney, then switched on her microphone. "Thank you very much for your wonderful, wise words," she said to Tutu. "That is the father I always knew in you. I am hoping it is still the same."
After Madikizela-Mandela finished her apologies, Tutu adjourned the meeting amid scattered applause. A jubilant Madikizela-Mandela embraced supporters, shook the hands of her interrogators and moved to the front podium to hug and kiss several of the seven commissioners who will ultimately pass judgment on her.
Although the truth commission has no authority to prosecute criminal cases, it issues findings on its investigations and can refer evidence to authorities.
"I didn't want the apology," said Abdul-Haq Asvat, father of the slain Soweto doctor, watching the spectacle after the hearing. "It didn't come from the heart."
Sooka, one of several commissioners who posed questions to Madikizela-Mandela that were sidestepped or ignored, said the last-minute apologies by no means assure Madikizela-Mandela gets off the hook. "We have to look at her statement and put it against the evidence," she said.
Still, Sooka said, Madikizela-Mandela's contrition was essential for many South Africans to hear. "It is important one does not underestimate the meaning of apologies for victims," she said. "One can't discount that the people of this country never had a formal apology from the apartheid state."
But on Thursday, it appeared that most South Africans were viewing Madikizela-Mandela through their time-tested political prisms, rather than through the hopeful platitudes of the truth commission.
As government officials with the African National Congress privately bad-mouthed Madikizela-Mandela inside the hearing hall, supporters outside praised her for exhibiting courage and integrity.
And in her closing statement to the commission--characterized by Tutu as more campaign speech than testimony--Madikizela-Mandela made it clear that she will continue her campaign later this month for the deputy presidency of the ANC. "I often wonder why I attract so much criticism," she said.