WINNIE MANDELA'S removal from South Africa's government was all but inevitable. President Nelson Mandela's estranged wife has been a political liability for years, with a long trail of suspect, and sometimes criminal, activities. She has at times ignored her husband's authority as president, as when she recently flew out of the country after he had ordered her to stay home to deal with charges that she accepted a bribe involving government housing contracts.
But the loss of her post as deputy minister of arts, culture, science, and technology doesn't necessarily mean Mrs. Mandela is out of the picture in South Africa. She remains president of the Women's League of the African National Congress, as well as an ANC member of Parliament. Her standing within the party's leadership, however, has plummeted. She could lose her remaining posts too.
The tragedy here is obvious. Not that long ago, in the midst of South Africa's struggle to cast off apartheid, Winnie Mandela was a rallying figure -- not just in her country but abroad too. She helped hold the country's opposition forces together during her husband's long imprisonment. And a bit of that symbolic status adheres to her. Some average South Africans, notably desperately poor squatters and township dwellers, as well as young radicals, still see her as their champion.
Mrs. Mandela, for her part, rarely misses an opportunity to tweak the government for not paying enough attention to the poor -- as when she needled it for spending freely on Queen Elizabeth's recent visit while many South Africans go hungry.
Such criticisms have a legitimate place in a country's political discourse. The poor of South Africa need able champions to make sure the improvement of housing, schools, and basic services like water and sewage remains a top priority. Unless such advances gather momentum, as President Mandela himself well knows, the peaceful transition to democracy could go awry.
But those looking out for the interests of the poor, to be effective, can't be tinged by corrupt self-interest. On that score, Mrs. Mandela has fallen short. May others do better.