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Spotlight on Winnie Mandela May Be Heat Lamp

President's ex-wife is set to appear before Truth Commission today to answer questions on murders.

The former wife of President Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, is scheduled to appear before South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission today to answer questions relating to a series of township murders in the late 1980s.

Reports claim that the controversial Ms. Madikizela-Mandela faces questioning in relation to 18 crimes, including the killings of seven blacks and an Asian doctor. Most of the victims were associated with the anti-apartheid struggle, of which she was an internationally acclaimed leader.

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The renewed scrutiny of Madikizela-Mandela's past comes at a time when she is emerging as a front-runner for the vice presidency of the ruling African National Congress party, a post that would resurrect her turbulent career in power politics. Analysts say that, if elected, she would be in a strong position to push for the party's leadership - and South Africa's presidency - when her ex-husband retires.

Chief among the crimes investigated will be the 1988 murder of Stompie Seipei, a street child who died after being beaten at Madikizela-Mandela's house. Although the leader of her "Mandela United" bodyguards was convicted of Stompie's murder, Madikizela-Mandela received a suspended sentence for kidnapping. Since then, several witnesses have reversed their testimony, saying they lied to protect her. In a book released this month, a key witness and codefendant alleges the ANC hid him in Zambia prior to her 1991 trial. The party denies the claim.

Madikizela-Mandela's possible reemergence is a prospect that concerns the ANC's current moderate leadership. In 1992, she was forced to resign as head of the party's welfare branch after allegedly embezzling money. Her husband, Nelson Mandela, had formally separated from her two days before. Undaunted, Madikizela-Mandela used her continuing popularity with poor urban blacks to win the chair of the ANC Women's League. In May 1994, her popularity within the party won her the job of junior minister in her husband's first Cabinet. She lost the job the following year after publicly attacking the leadership, which she accused of pandering to South Africa's white minority.

In recent weeks, her efforts to mount a third comeback have been hampered by a series of renewed allegations about her role in a series of abductions, assaults, and murders that shocked Soweto - Johannesburg's vast black township - in the late 1980s. These include claims from a former "Mandela United" member that she personally stabbed Stompie and that she hired assassins to kill Abu-Baker Asvat, a doctor and Black Consciousness activist who had seen her with the badly beaten Stompie at her Soweto home. She is also accused of ordering the murders of several other young activists.

But political observers believe the renewed allegations have done little to dent her popularity with poor urban blacks, who remember her as a defiant and fiery leader during the final decade of her ex-husband's 27 years in prison. Last week, the Johannesburg daily Mail and Guardian reported that few residents of Phola Park squatter camp, one of her power bases, were even aware of the claims.

This week's hearings will give the Truth Commission's investigators a chance to put questions to her in private, with the possibility of public hearings later on. She has so far refused to apply for amnesty, saying she has nothing to confess.

Her lawyers say they may ask for a postponement. If refused, the hearing will proceed without delay, albeit behind closed doors. The Commission has no power to punish wrongdoers, but failure to answer a subpoena is punishable with a fine and up to two years in prison. New evidence uncovered by the Commission could also be used in future criminal or civil actions. The family of Dr. Asvat is pressing for a new investigation of her role in his death, and this week Stompie's mother said she wanted financial compensation from Madikizela-Mandela for the loss of her son.

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