JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- After a day of vehement denial, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela bowed to an emotional appeal yesterday from Archbishop Desmond Tutu for an admission that "things went horribly wrong" when violence and death swirled around her in the late 1980s.
"I beg you, I beg you, I beg you, please," said the prelate who chairs the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "You are a great person, and you don't know how your greatness would be enhanced if you would say you are sorry. 'Things went wrong. Forgive me.' I beg you."
He and five other commissioners had spent nine days listening to testimony incriminating her in a "reign of terror" revolving around her Mandela United Football Club in the township of Soweto as the apartheid era was ending and African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, who was then her husband, languished in jail.
They listened as she dismissed as "ludicrous," "ridiculous" and "lunacy" accusations that she was involved the kidnappings, beatings and murders with which a dozen witnesses have associated her.
Poised and confident, she disputed virtually every allegation. With explosive indignation she told the commission: "You are not suggesting, for God's sake, I should be held responsible for the actions of those youths when they left my premises."
She clearly stunned Tutu with a final address that had the ring of what he described as a "campaign speech" instead of the apology he was expecting.
Speaking to her personally and pastorally, Tutu told the godmother of one of his grandchildren: "I acknowledge Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's role in the history of our struggle. And yet, one can see something went wrong, horribly, badly wrong. What, I don't know." For a few seconds there was silence. Then "the mother of the nation," who hardly uttered a word of remorse throughout the day, switched on her microphone and said: "It is true. Things went horribly wrong. I fully agree with that.
"And for that part of those painful years when things went horribly wrong -- and we were aware that there were factors that led to that -- I am deeply sorry."
She apologized to the family of Dr. Abu-Baker Asvat, for whose murder, according to evidence presented to the commission, she allegedly paid two Zulus $4,000.
She denied any involvement in the killing, allegedly carried out to silence the doctor because he knew too much about the violence at her house and refused to corroborate her false allegation that a local Methodist minister had sodomized youths.
She also apologized to the mother of Stompie Seipei, a 14-year-old member of her football club, who was beaten and killed after being accused of being a police informer. She had denied any involvement in the killing even though she has been convicted of a role in his kidnapping.
The hearings left as many questions as it provided answers. As Deputy Chairman Alex Borraine said: "It is extraordinarily difficult to sort out who is telling the truth and who is not."
The commission will not pass any verdict, innocent or guilty, on Madikizela-Mandela but has the power to recommend prosecution of any perpetrators of gross human rights violations when it presents its final report to President Mandela next year.
Judging from the commissioners' questions to her, it was clear they were struck by the sheer weight of testimony against her.
Her suggestion that she was the victim of a "bandwagon" of fabrication would have required collusion among a dozen young men who were close to her, local church and community leaders, the police and the security service.
Confronted with the dimensions of such a conspiracy, she said: "I really have no idea how they managed to weave that web."
She suggested that the hearings were timed to precede a conference this month of the ruling ANC in which she is running for vice president. "It has been a common factor that every time we near some event, some national event which is connected with the ANC, things such as this would happen," she said.
Borraine reminded her that she had demanded a public hearing rather than the closed-door session the commission had proposed. The session was organized as quickly as possible.
A second bomb threat in two days to Madikizela-Mandela came as a grim reminder of the violence that characterized the times in which the beatings and killings occurred and that haunts this fledgling democracy. The hearing ended under heavy guard.
And in another reflection of this society's ever-present tensions, Seipei's mother was harassed during a break in the proceedings by members of the ANC Women's League, of which Madikizela-Mandela is president.
Tutu condemned the incident as "reprehensible," and an outraged Madikizela-Mandela immediately asked for details, saying: "We cannot believe any mother, let alone members of the Women's League, would be involved in that kind of incident."
Where this all leaves the reconciliation process in a country trying to put its segregated past to rest remains unclear. Perhaps significantly, the commission will decide today what to do about a president of the apartheid era, P. W. Botha, 82, who twice has refused to obey a subpoena to appear before what he has termed "a circus." Botha may be imprisoned or fined if he fails to appear at today's session in Cape Town.
The contrast between the public humiliation of Madikizela-Mandela and the aloofness of Botha has not been lost on commentators here.
"Now that Madikizela-Mandela's hearing is nearly concluded," wrote prominent black columnist Jon Qwelane, "can we expect white South Africa and their media and political parties to put up as spirited and concerted -- and yes, hate-filled -- a campaign for the reining in of P. W. Botha by the TRC as they have just done with her?'
And where does it leave Madikizela-Mandela? A heroine of the struggle and a champion of the poor, she has her own constituency in the townships and there is no sign of the hearings weakening her support there.
She is a long shot for the ANC's vice presidency, but Madikizela-Mandela has a record of thriving on adversity.
To learn more
For more information about topics covered in this article, go to The Sun's Web site, SunSpot, at www.sunspot.net/news/
Pub Date: 12/05/97