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Winnie Mandela: Focus of Controversy

Nelson Mandela stands at a crucial point in negotiations for political reform in South Africa, but new allegations against his wife threaten to damage both the ANC and its president

ALMOST a year after Winnie Mandela, wife of African National Congress President Nelson Mandela, received a six-year jail sentence for her role in the kidnapping and assault of four black youths, she is again the center of controversy and facing new allegations about her past and present activities.

Last week a codefendant in the Mandela case, Xoliswa Falati, threatened to reveal damaging information about Mrs. Mandela, including circumstances surrounding the death of a prominent Soweto physician, Abu-Baker Asvat.

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Another codefendant, Katiza Cebekhulu, said last fall in an interview for the Monitor in Lusaka, Zambia, that Mrs. Mandela was responsible for the Asvat death and he would be willing to so testify in court.

The allegation has twice been presented to Ismail Ayob, the Mandela family lawyer, for response. He said they would make no direct comment on the accusation while her appeal on the other case was pending.

In a November 1991 statement responding to this and allegations raised by others, the lawyer, said: "An attempt is being made to resuscitate allegations against Mrs. Mandela which were canvassed, and in many respects rejected, by the supreme court."

Since last fall, the Monitor and Southam News of Toronto have conducted an investigation during which Mrs. Mandela's name has been linked by others to the Asvat case, in which two black men were convicted of murder and armed robbery.

The Monitor also found that a statement was made to the police by one of Asvat's convicted killers, Thulani Johannes Dlamini, in which he said that the other man responsible for the death was to have received payment from Mrs. Mandela once the murder was carried out. That statement was never submitted as oral argument at the trial, according to state prosecutor Jamie van der Merwe, because it was at odds with the police investigation.

The Monitor has a copy of the statement and has discussed the issue with the state prosecutor in the Asvat case. Mr. Van der Merwe told the Monitor and Southam News in an exclusive interview that he did not believe the true motive of the doctor's murder had been revealed. He indicated that it is his belief there is a connection between Mrs. Mandela and the Asvat death.

"My gut feeling all along was that there was something very strange," he said. "It was just too much of a coincidence.... I just had the feeling that this was not an armed robbery or murder - but an assassination. But we never had any hard information."

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Toward the end of the trial, Van der Merwe began a line of questioning exploring the possibility of a link. But the police investigating officer said under oath that he could find no connection between Mrs. Mandela and the Asvat death. Van der Merwe said in the interview he was not convinced that the police had explored every avenue.

There is widespread disquiet in antiapartheid circles about Mrs. Mandela's past and present conduct. Beginning in 1987, according to reports in Frontline magazine published that year, she operated as a self-appointed arbiter of "people's justice" in Soweto by deciding on punishments for individuals in the community that were then meted out by her bodyguards, a group of township youths called the United Mandela Football Club.

Her conviction last May on kidnapping and assault charges came in the case of Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, a 14-year-old Soweto activist who was one of four youths assaulted in her home in December 1988. Stompie was later found dead, and Jerry Richardson, then head of her bodyguard, is serving a 19-year jail sentence for the murder.

Asvat, who had had a long professional association with Mrs. Mandela, had reportedly been called to her home to examine Stompie after the beatings. But according to a number of sources, Asvat refused to treat the youth, recommending that he be taken to the hospital. Two weeks after that visit, Asvat was killed in his consulting room. Mrs. Mandela and the ANC

Two lawyers close to the Mandela trial (but not on her team), anti-apartheid activists, former friends of Mrs. Mandela, and the Asvat family, as well as the state prosecutor are among those who say they believe she had a hand in Asvat's murder.

Several ANC officials have told the Monitor, on condition of anonymity, that the organization's image will suffer until she is cast from its ranks. She heads the ANC department of social welfare, a member of its national executive committee, an executive member of the ANC Women's League, and head of an ANC branch.

"Without the protection of her husband, Mrs. Mandela would be out on the street with her belongings," says an official in ANC headquarters.

Mr. Mandela's pivotal position in South Africa's ongoing political negotiations makes him indispensable to an evolutionary transition in the country, political scientists and diplomats say.

But new allegations about Mrs. Mandela are causing concern among senior ANC officials over Mr. Mandela's own judgment in continuing to protect his wife and the damage this could damage him and the ANC in a crucial stage in the negotiating process.

Friends say Mr. Mandela has felt an overwhelming obligation to his wife and a sense of guilt about the ordeal she suffered at the hands of authorities during his 27 years in jail. But friends say the bond between them has been strained to the limit by recent events, and they have been living apart for some months.

The two codefendants making the allegations against Mrs. Mandela, Katiza Cebekhulu and Xolisa Falati, were once very close to her and say she has since betrayed them.

Mr. Cebekhulu was associated with her bodyguard and lived for some time in her home. His claims were made five months ago from a jail cell in Lusaka, Zambia, where he had been held as a prohibited immigrant; Cebekhulu said he was spirited out of South Africa at Mrs. Mandela's request days after their trial began in February 1991. He said Mrs. Mandela offered him exile or death.

In a tape-recorded interview with a human rights lawyer acting for the Monitor, Cebekhulu claimed that Mrs. Mandela had ordered Asvat's death after she realized he would not take medical responsibility for a dying youth, Stompie.

Ayob told the Monitor repeatedly that he thinks Cebekhulu "is not the kind of person you could rely on for anything at all."

Since December, Cebekhulu's whereabouts have not been known, but he is thought to be in a "safe house" in Lusaka under the care of the UN High Commission on Refugees.

South African authorities appear indifferent about the prospect of his return; the Transvaal province attorney general has said that the state has no plans to apply for his extradition.

Cebekhulu's credibility in making his accusations can be questioned. He was charged in the Stompie assault and therefore had good reason to leave the country. He could also be trying to strike back at Mrs. Mandela.

Although an examination deemed Cebekhulu mentally fit to testify in court, some sources say he has at times suffered from psychological problems.

But the Zambian human rights lawyer who interviewed Cebekhulu said that although he was a person of humble education, he was clearly intelligent. (The lawyer handled the interview because this reporter was denied entry into Lusaka Central Prison. Two South African lawyers who have spoken to Cebekhulu confirm the voice on the tape-recording as his.) Eviction and threats

Mrs. Falati's threats were made to a reporter of The Sowetan the newspaper in the black township of Soweto, after Mrs. Mandela had evicted her from the Mandelas' former home Sunday, March 29, at gunpoint, according to neighbors. Falati was later returned to the home, where she has been living, following the personal intervention of Nelson Mandela.

Falati said, in the Sowetan report, that she had been told no funds would be available for her appeal. (Mrs. Mandela appeal is under way; Mr. Ayob said this week that it would probably be heard toward the end of the year.)

Falati told the Sowetan newspaper after her dispute with Mrs. Mandela last week that the latter was breaking their relationship now that Falati had served her purpose. "I can't believe that she is dumping me after all that I have done for her," Falati said. She told the London Sunday Times this week that she had lied during the trial to protect Mrs. Mandela from charges of first degree assault against Stompie and the other youths.

"I have been instructed not to talk to journalists by the ANC president, ... by ANC security and ANC intelligence," Falati told the Monitor April 2.

On Thursday, after visits from ANC security officials, Falati left accompanied by four men in an car and has not been seen since.

ANC spokeswoman Gill Marcus said yesterday she did not know of Falati's whereabouts.

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