A LONGTIME member of the African National Congress told me the other day that he was thrilled Winnie Mandela had been fired from President Nelson Mandela's cabinet -- but not because he is one of her many detractors.
"At last," he said, "she can do the real work of liberation. The government is not delivering on its promises, and now Winnie is free to hold it accountable to the people who elected it in the first place."
He is not alone. According to the tradition of populist heroines -- see Imelda, Evita -- support for Winnie Mandela seems to rise in direct proportion to her self-aggrandizement: Her alleged diamond-buying forays at the taxpayers' expense; her refusal to submit to party discipline; a perpetual odor of corruption about her, including fresh allegations of fraud concerning a charity she set up.
Her regal style of militancy has made her the favorite of South Africa's dispossessed: the squatter communities, rural poor and township youth.
Even as she abuses her high office, she gives voice to widespread frustration with the slowness of the transition and with the perception that the government is more interested in appeasing whites in the name of reconciliation than in addressing the needs of the black majority.
Winnie Mandela has become one of the ANC's closest links to its grass roots supporters. President Nelson Mandela's long tolerance for his estranged wife has to be seen in the context of this dilemma.
After he appointed her as a deputy minister last year, he was swayed by the argument that she would be more of a liability outside the government than in.
He has, at last, changed his mind. But all this really means is that Mrs. Mandela no longer has the resources and privileges of a deputy minister. She remains a member of parliament.
And she still sits on the ANC's executive committee and serves as chairwoman of its Women's League -- two key positions she gained through popular election.
How much power she retains will partly depend on one of her erstwhile allies in the government -- Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, who reportedly had argued initially for keeping her in the cabinet.
This was partly because she had assisted him in his own power struggles within the ANC, and partly because, as President Mandela's heir apparent, he would have the most to fear if she developed a strong constituency outside the government.
Since Mr. Mbeki withdrew his support from Mrs. Mandela, the tactical alliance between the two may be over.
But a critical point remains. Her militant populism, while more radical than that of Mr. Mbeki and most of President Mandela's inner circle, should not be confused with true left-wing ideology.
Rather, it can almost be caricatured as "let's talk tough to scare the whites into giving us the goodies."
Strangely enough, such war talk is not as far as one might think from the politics of Mr. Mbeki, an urbane moderate with ties to South Africa's business interests.
For Mrs. Mandela's main concern appears to be the promotion of a black elite under the guise of "upliftment" rather than an overhaul of society.
Given that this is the prevailing politics of the ANC elite, Mrs. Mandela is not too far out of line. In any case, it is not for nothing that she has become known in some quarters as Mama Comeback.
She has been cast into the wilderness before, and there is no reason to believe she is incapable of another rehabilitation.
Could she even succeed Nelson Mandela as the next president, as some suggest?
She is shrewd, charismatic and above all beloved by determined followers. True, she faces new accusations of fraud, but even a conviction for kidnapping in 1990 only buttressed her support among some followers, who maintain that she is the victim of an elaborate smear campaign.
What might hurt her is that, like all populist icons, her support base is fickle, for she relies on visceral appeal, not organizational strength.
Nonetheless, a second President Mandela is certainly possible. If he is concerned about a demagogic takeover, then he has taken an important first step by dropping his estranged wife from the cabinet.
But that was the easy part.
As long as the government is perceived to be failing to even begin delivering what it promised -- jobs, education, housing, justice -- to the people who put it into power, Winnie Mandela will remain a force to be reckoned with.
Mark Gevisser, South African correspondent for The Nation, is co-editor of "Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa."