JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Winnie Mandela found herself at the center of another storm yesterday, this time with the appearance of a letter in which she allegedly incriminates herself in the misuse of African National Congress funds.
The lengthy letter, purportedly written by Mrs. Mandela and published in Sunday newspapers nationwide, confirmed a love affair with a young lawyer and blamed the affair for the breakup of her marriage with ANC leader Nelson Mandela.
Most damaging of all, the letter seemed to confirm that Mrs. Mandela took thousands of dollars illegally from the ANC and squandered it with her purported lover, Dali Mpofu, 30. The letter is sure to further damage Mrs. Mandela's reputation and weaken her chances of a political comeback. ANC leaders were to discuss today recent protests demanding Mrs. Mandela's reinstatement as head of the ANC's social welfare department.
There was room for doubt, however, about the authenticity of the handwriting in the letter, which ended with "It's me," not Mrs. Mandela's signature.
Neither Mrs. Mandela, 58, nor Mr. Mpofu could be reached yesterday for comment. Both have previously denied rumors of a love affair. And Mrs. Mandela has maintained that she is the victim of a government-sponsored campaign to discredit her reputation and her family.
The letter, dated March 17 and addressed simply to "Dali," was leaked anonymously to newspapers. The letter writer accuses "Dali" of having other love affairs and lying about them, but the writer says she had allowed her marriage to suffer because of their relationship.
Mrs. Mandela was head of the ANC's social welfare department, and Mr. Mpofu was her assistant. Both were ousted following Mr. Mandela's emotional announcement last April that he and his wife were splitting up after 34 years of marriage.
That announcement came amid reports of an internal ANC investigation into funds missing from Mrs. Mandela's department.
"I tell you, I'm in trouble with the Simmonds Street [bank account], which reflects over 160,000 rands [$60,000] drawn over a period for you. You don't even bother to check how we can overcome this," the letter says.
"I tell you Ntombi is gossiping about the checks we used to ask her to cash for us in the name of the department and how I gave you all that money," the letter says, apparently referring to Ntombi Matshoba, Mrs. Mandela's former assistant in the social welfare department.
The letter was splashed across the front pages of the Sunday Times, Sunday Star and Sunday Tribune, with the latter running a single-word headline, 'Winniegate.'
The newspapers said they called in experts to verify the handwriting, and also confirmed the letter's authenticity with sources close to the Mandela family. "Given the history in this country of dirty tricks, we were cautious," said Brian Pottinger, political editor of the Sunday Times.
"We checked with people in the organization and someone close to the family," he told The Sun. "We managed to get somebody we thought was impeccable to say it was the genuine article."
ANC spokesman Pallo Jordan did not verify the letter but said it might have been sent to the newspapers by government intelligence agents. Others have speculated that it might have been leaked by Mrs. Mandela's enemies inside the ANC, who want to make certain she cannot mount a political comeback.
There have been rumors for over two years about an intimate relationship between Mrs. Mandela and Mr. Mpofu, who is often referred to as her "toy boy."
The two were often seen in public, and Mr. Mpofu was part of the defense team that represented Mrs. Mandela in her trial last year for kidnapping and assault of four young men in her home, one of whom was later found dead. She was found guilty and the case is under appeal.
In the wake of the scandals, Mrs. Mandela -- once known as Mother of the Nation -- lost all of her official positions in the ANC, an organization that is almost synonymous with the Mandela name. She was suspended from the national executive committee of the ANC women's league and as chairman of the regional women's league.