Friday’s D-Day for Winnie’s team

Today is expected to be D-Day for the "football team" associated with Winnie Mandela.

A major announcement aimed at defusing the crisis surrounding the team is expected sometime today, according to sources both in the country and in exile. This week has been one of shuttle dipomacy between all parties involved in controversy: the special high-powered crisis committee formed last year to sort out the matter; civic associations which have taken a strong stand against the team; Methodist Church leaders; lawyers and the African National Congress in Lusaka.

Meetings between and among these parties have been taking place two or three times a day since last week. The committee faces one urgent question: What has happened to "Stompie" Mokhetsi, the 14-year-old Tumahole youth who vanished, allegedly after being abducted from the Orlando West Methodist Church by members of the team?

Stompie was one of four youths allegedly taken from the church at the end of December. Bishop Peter Storey, of the Methodist Church, said this week the church was very concerned about Stompie's fate. He said the church had medical proof that the boys had been severely assaulted.

The crisis committee will also have to find a long-term solution to the existence of the team and the serious allegations of its misconduct. The committee is keeping silent at the moment — though it is clear that the level of anger over the conduct of the team has reached levels that are impossible to ignore. There have been calls by people in the progressive movement for the disbanding of the football team.

In an interview in the US this week, Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu also called for the team to be disbanded. Even the trainer of the football team, Jerry Richardson, found the need to speak out. He was quoted in a newspaper report as saying that it was "absolute nonsense that members of the team were responsible for the abduction of the 14-year-old teenager".

He said the team had been disbanded in 1986 after all its members were detained by police. But the team has been seen wearing full colours on numerous occasions since then, including at last week's funeral of Dr Abu Baker Asvat. Richardson said Stompie had last been seen at the place where he had "taken refuge" a week after the alleged abduction.He also offered his assistance and that of the team in locating Stompie — despite his earlier claim that the team did not exist.

This week Storey strongly denied the suggestion that the death of political activist and community leader Dr Abu-Baker Asvat was in any way connected with the saga of the football team. Winnie Mandela has said the boys were removed from the church in order to protect them from sexual harassment by Methodist minister Paul Verryn.

However, Verryn was exonerated of the charges at a community meeting held in Dobsonville, Soweto. This heard evidence from two of the boys who were abducted and later released from the custody of the football tem.

The missing boy at the centre of the abduction scandal, known as "the young general", is believed to be a former leader of a 1 500-strong "children's army" in the Free State township of Tumahole.

Stompie was also detained under the Emergency regulations for as long as 11 months. His detention received much coverage as he was 10 years old at the time and the youngest child detainee in South Africa.

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