Questions about Winnie

Was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela deceived and trapped by apartheid’s notorious security police?

NELSON MANDELA’S valedictory speech as president of the African National Congress, made at the organisation’s 50th national conference in Mafikeng on December 16, 1997, contained an astounding allegation. He accused unnamed members of the media of penetrating ANC ranks and encouraging the organisation to self-destruct, “with the active involvement of some who are present here as bona fide delegates to the conference of a movement to which they owe no loyalty.”

Informed observers at the conference were convinced that Mandela was alluding to an interview conducted by Zimbabwean-born journalist Newton Kanhema with ANC Women’s League president Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. In the interview, published in The Star late last year, Madikizela-Mandela accused the ANC leadership of reneging on its promises to “the masses”, abandoning the vision spelt out in the Freedom Charter, and attempting to prescribe to ANC members whom they should choose as their leaders.

The ANC leadership reacted sharply. Sports Minister Steve Tshwete issued a statement, almost certainly with the backing of Thabo Mbeki, accusing Madikizela-Mandela of being a “wayward charlatan”. The outgoing ANC deputy secretary-general Cheryl Carolus, noting that Madikizela-Mandela had not had the courage to raise her criticisms at internal ANC meetings, labelled her outburst in The Star cowardly.

The conviction that Madikizela-Mandela had not behaved as a disciplined member of the ANC by publicly attacking her co-leaders is of more than academic interest. It adversely affects her chances of recovering from the set-backs she suffered at the conference. These allegations of ill-discipline and disloyalty resonate with similar charges made during the nine-day Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearing into accusations implicating her in serious crimes, including murder and assault in the late 1980s. Intertwined with these accusations of cruel and tyrannical behaviour were charges that she was either, at best, careless of the safety of ANC operatives during the final years of armed struggle against apartheid or, at worst, allowed herself to be used by the police in their manoeuvres against the ANC.

During his testimony to the TRC Azar Cachalia, former treasurer-general of the pro-ANC United Democratic Front (UDF) and now head of the Secretariat for Safety and Security, articulated the suspicions which Madikizela-Mandela aroused in the minds of many, though not all, residents of Soweto, in whose midst she lived after her return from exile in Brandfort in 1985. Cachalia, who was party to a 1989 UDF statement accusing Madikizela-Mandela of considering herself above the movement, said: “Just about everyone seemed to be aware that there were guerrillas and arms in the Mandela house.” Yet, he added, she was neither arrested nor questioned by the police. Thus “some members of the community held the view that Mrs Mandela (as she was then known) was herself working with the police.”

Cachalia’s TRC statement does not refer specifically to an episode involving an Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) guerrilla Oupa Seheri. But a bloody night in January 1987 in which Seheri killed two men illuminates the point he was making. The essential facts can be summarised succinctly: Seheri knew S’thembiso Buthelezi, a member of the Mandela United Football Club (MUFC) and Zinzi Mandela’s boyfriend at the time. On the night in question he left an AK-47 rifle under Zinzi’s bed in the Mandela house in Orlando and took a Scorpion pistol with him to teach politicised black youths how to use it. The youths did not arrive at the rendezvous and instead Seheri went to a Soweto shebeen where he got drunk. An altercation took place there between Seheri and Xola Mokhaula, which developed into a full-scale fight, won by Mokhaula, who ended up with the pistol. Seheri went back to the Mandela home, collected the AK-47 and, accompanied by several members of the MUFC, proceeded to hunt down Mokhaula. Before the night was out Seheri had killed Mokhaula and one of his friends, recovered the pistol and returned to the Mandela home. Police discovered the pistol in Zinzi’s bedroom and Seheri was tried and convicted of murder.

Madikizela-Mandela was never questioned by the police, though her home was used to hide the pistol (a semi-automatic firearm favoured by MK guerrillas) and her car was used in the pursuit which led to the killing of Mokhaula. Admissions made by Buthelezi and another MUFC member Charles Zwane meant it was unnecessary to call Madikizela-Mandela as a witness. But those admissions were never followed up. If Seheri’s killing spree did nothing else, it must have alerted police to the importance of the Mandela house as a potential meeting place for MK guerrillas and even as a temporary storage depot for weapons. However, Madikizela-Mandela, while taking immense risks, appeared to lead a charmed life.

During the TRC inquiry Madikizela-Mandela told the commissioners at the initial in-camera session that she was an MK operative who took orders from Chris Hani, the then chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe. The police were certainly aware of her connections with MK. They tapped her telephone around the clock, kept her house under surveillance and, as the TRC hearing later demonstrated, had informers within the MUFC. Yet, as Cachalia observed, for years she remained apparently immune from questioning, let alone arrest and prosecution.

The enigma deepened after the police raid on the home of the MUFC coach Jerry Richardson on November 11, 1988, in which two guerrillas known as Sipho and Tebogo were killed. Even at the time it seemed strange that Richardson, now serving a life sentence for the killing of 14-year-old Stompie Sepei, escaped prosecution for harbouring the two guerrillas. Subsequent investigations by the TRC provide an explanation. Richardson, as he acknowledged after persistent questioning at the TRC hearing into allegations against Madikizela-Mandela late last year, had been a police agent in mid-1988. Accordingly the police released him after a fortnight so that he could continue his work as an informer. As the coach of MUFC (its members included MK cadres) and as a man who seemed to have won the confidence of Madikizela-Mandela, he was in an admirable position to conduct surveillance on behalf of his paymasters in the security police.

After the attack on his home Richardson’s statement to the security police implicated Madikizela-Mandela in the episode. He told the police that she had brought the two guerrillas to his house and that, at her request, he had taken them in.

Once again police did not act against her. Why not? They might have been increasingly reluctant to act against a prominent member of the Mandela family, a not unreasonable hypothesis since a prosecution might have brought more disadvantages than gains. That consideration aside, two other reasons might explain their reticence: either she was more useful to them in their twin task of keeping the outlawed ANC under surveillance and of discrediting the organisation and its imprisoned and exiled leaders; or, more implausibly, she was already co-operating with one of more their agents. On the last point it should be noted that Richardson testified that she had a close relationship with Paul Erasmus, who was a key man in the Witwatersrand branch of Stratkom, a police unit specialising in disinformation and psycho-political warfare. Richardson claims that he once saw Erasmus leave Madikizela-Mandela’s bedroom in the early morning hours.

During the TRC investigation Madikizela-Mandela was repeatedly asked why she had taken Richardson into her home after he was released by the security police following the attack on his home and the killing of the two guerrillas. It was put to her that there were compelling reasons for being suspicious of Richardson: he had given refuge to two ANC combatants but, though interrogated, he had not been charged. Madikizela-Mandela steadfastly insisted that she had not suspected that Richardson was a police agent until his cover was blown during the TRC hearing.

The day before Madikizela-Mandela was confronted on the issue at the TRC hearing, Richardson himself, pinned down by astute questioning, admitted that he had been an informer. Earlier during the same hearing Police Commissioner George Fivaz admitted under cross-examination that the police had paid Richardson R10,000 in 1995 for “past services” and to “oil his hand” for co-operation into a renewed inquiry into the disappearance of two young Soweto men, Lolo Sono and Siboniso Tshabalala. Sono’s father Nicodemus told the TRC he had last seen his son in a vehicle with Madikizela-Mandela. Ironically these young men were accused of betraying the guerrillas at Richardson’s house although it was Madikizela-Mandela who had sent them there, even though she should have known that she and the Mandela United Football Club, and perhaps especially its coach, were kept under close observation by the police.

By accepting Richardson back into her circle after his house had been raided Madikizela-Mandela gave him the imprimatur of her approval and thus set him up to continue his work for the police while dutifully fulfilling whatever instructions “mummy” — as he referred to Madikizela-Mandela — gave him. According to Richardson’s testimony, her orders included the abduction of Stompie and three young men from the Methodist manse in Soweto in December 1988 and the murder a few days later of Stompie.

In retrospect Madikizela-Mandela’s re-acceptance of Richardson into her entourage after the raid on his home seems incredible, particularly in view of the accusations of betrayal which she levelled at Sono and Tshabalala and Richardson’s evidence to the TRC that they were held captive on Madikizela-Mandela’s orders and later executed. This recalls a phrase used by the former South African activist Paul Trewhela to describe the situation in the ranks of the ANC expatriates at the height of the paranoia about spies which swept through the outlawed movement’s ranks: “Real patriots were hunted down as enemy agents while real enemy agents urged on the hunt.”

Again one is confronted by a conundrum in seeking to explain Madikizela-Mandela’s actions: was she naive and negligent, deluded by a sense of personal power and infallibility, or deceived and trapped by the machinations of the police? The reverse side of the enigma is the curious reluctance of the police to prosecute her. Apart from the examples already cited, there are the strange fates that overtook two trained ANC combatants, Johannes Mabotha and Sizwe Sithole. Both were part of her entourage and both suffered grisly deaths after being arrested by the police.

One of “mummy’s” reputed young lovers, Mabotha was a member of the circle of trusted young men who surrounded Madikizela-Mandela in 1988-89. After the death of Stompie, according to evidence garnered by TRC investigators, he was sent out of Soweto by Madikizela-Mandela to lay a false trail by reporting that he had seen Stompie in Botswana. Later, after making a telephone call in the first quarter of 1989 to Madikizela-Mandela for money to return to Soweto, he was arrested by police who traced him through their surveillance of all calls to and from her Soweto house. Mabotha was an important witness to the Stompie affair. According to a statement he made to the police, he overheard a conversation between Richardson and Madikizela-Mandela relating to the death of Sepei, whom Richardson murdered, acting, he now insists, on the orders of “mummy”.

But, instead of holding Mabotha as a potential state witness, Soweto security police handed him over to Eugene de Kock, commander of the notorious police death squad at Vlakplaas near Pretoria. During his trial on multiple charges of murder and fraud, de Kock admitted that Mabotha had been executed by Vlakplaas men during 1989. His body was repeatedly blown up until it literally disintegrated into unidentifiable fragments.

Before joining Madikizela-Mandela’s entourage, Mabotha had served as an askari or collaborator at Vlakplaas. He had escaped and ended up at Madikizela-Mandela’s house in Soweto. In a statement after he was captured by Soweto security police following his telephone call to Madikizela-Mandela, he claimed that he had been abducted from Mamelodi, near Pretoria, by members of the MUFC. If that was so, he was in a position to tell the ANC about Vlakplaas long before its existence was exposed in November 1989 by the independent Afrikaans newspaper, Vrye Weekblad. As an important witness to the ruthless counter-revolutionary strategy adopted by the Vlakplaas unit, why was he not smuggled out of South Africa for debriefing by the ANC’s intelligence department? Was it another case of negligence by Madikizela-Mandela or was it more than that?

At the time of Sithole’s arrest in January 1990, he was Zinzi Mandela’s current boyfriend and the father of one of her children. According to Katiza Cebekhulu, another witness who testified at the TRC hearing, Sithole was set up for arrest by Madikizela-Mandela. He was given weapons for safe-keeping and then betrayed to the police, Cebekhulu said. Sithole cracked under intense interrogation and pointed out various places where arms caches were hidden. One of those places was the boot of a car belonging to Madikizela-Mandela. She was never prosecuted. Sithole, however, was later found hanging from a water pipe in police headquarters in Johannesburg. In his inquest into Sithole’s death Judge Richard Goldstone found that he had hanged himself with a belt and shoelaces, though police had earlier testified that his belt and shoelaces were taken from him when he was first incarcerated.

As Judge Goldstone indicated in his report it was not clear why Sithole committed suicide, whether it was because he felt betrayed by “certain people from Orlando West” — an apparent reference to Madikizela-Mandela and her daughter, Zinzi — or whether it was because he had “implicated people very close to him in criminal conduct.” What was beyond dispute, however, was that another potential witness against Madikizela-Mandela was dead.

While Mabotha was murdered by de Kock, Sithole (who confessed to three guerrilla actions in 1988, a grenade attack, the shooting of a state witness and an assault on the home of a policeman) died by his own hand. But the suicide was only possible because he had regained possession of the shoelaces and belt reportedly taken from him by police. Inexplicably, Goldstone did not deal with the reappearance of the belt and shoelaces in his report on Sithole’s death. Seen in the context of Mabotha’s earlier death, the suspicion lingers that they were deliberately given to him while he was in a depressed and suicidal state. That suspicion leads to another: the action might have been prompted by a desire to protect Madikizela-Mandela.