When Thabo came to Winnie’s rescue

Thabo Mbeki walked the tightrope between the country’s first couple this week. Mark Gevisser reports

PRESIDENT Nelson Mandela was so “fed up” with the ill- discipline and unaccountability of his estranged wife, Winnie Mandela, that he was resolved to drop her from the cabinet until persuaded otherwise by several ANC leaders, including Thabo Mbeki.

At his Sunday meeting with the 11 senior ANC women who resigned their positions on the Women’s League national executive committee (NEC) in protest against Winnie Mandela’s leadership, the president said that, following her remarks at the funeral of Warrant Officer Jabulani Xaba, he was absolutely firm about firing her.

He told the women he had consulted with the seven ANC regional premiers, and all but one of them had agreed that the move was long overdue. He would have relieved her of her duties immediately, he said, were it not for “comrades” having “restrained” him.

The result was a meeting, last Thursday, of all ANC ministers and senior officials, and the “retract, resign or be fired” ultimatum that was given to Winnie Mandela the next day.

A senior source in the ANC alleges that Deputy- President Thabo Mbeki played a critical behind-the- scenes role in convincing Mandela not to act rashly and to consult more widely before taking any action. Mbeki was then responsible for drafting the letter of apology that Winnie Mandela finally signed.

Mbeki’s director of communications, Thami Ntintile, counters, however, that “no such role” was played by Mbeki. The decision to offer Winnie Mandela a choice was “made at a meeting called by President Mandela last Thursday. It was on the basis of the inputs made by several people at that meeting that the president made his decision.”

The debate over her future cuts to the heart of a core ANC dilemma: how to keep troublesome ANC members in line without alienating vital constituencies and encouraging factionalism. While there are those in the ANC who believe that people like Winnie Mandela, Allan Boesak and Peter Mokaba need to be jettisoned once and for all, “so that they stop coming back to haunt us”, in the words of one NEC member, there are others who believe that unity must be kept at all costs.

Negotiating between these two seemingly exclusive prerogatives, Mbeki spent his week shuttling between the Mandelas, and attempting to temper both the irascibility of the president and the exasperation of the 11 resigned Women’s League NEC members.

Perhaps his mediatory role was appropriate, given that he is the ANC’s political manager. But he too encompasses a dilemma: on the one hand, the shoot-from- the-hip antics of Winnie Mandela, Bantu Holomisa and Mokaba cannot but work against his primary appeal as the man who will bring international capital to South Africa; on the other, he has risen to the position of Mandela’s successor in no small part because of the support of the Women’s League and the Youth League; support delivered either directly by Winnie Mandela or by her lieutenants.

At the meeting at which the 11 executive members resigned from the Women’s League, held last Saturday, Mbeki — who was called in to troubleshoot — urged them to consider party unity above all else.

Said one of the women: “It felt as if we were being rapped over the knuckles; as if we were being condemned for being divisive. He seemed to be saying that we should not cause trouble and just go quietly, by not standing for office. It was as if we were being condemned for being good comrades, and raising important issues …”

When Mandela met them the next day, the message was altogether different: “He seemed much more willing to listen to our concerns, and gave the impression that the wrong people were leaving the Women’s League.” The result is a meeting of the entire league executive, along with the ANC’s national leadership, to take place tomorrow.

What upsets those who have resigned, says another of the women, is that “our battle is being denigrated as a cat fight in the Women’s League, and we are being accused of resigning because we are `anti-Winnie’. It’s just not true. We resigned because we felt we needed to make a vital and urgent point about cleanness and accountability in leadership.”

The rift within the Women’s League goes back to 1992, when the then-NEC suspended the entire PWV regional executive, of which Winnie Mandela was chair. This action was taken after it was proved that she had used the league to mount a demonstration against the ANC after being suspended from her post as social welfare head. Shortly thereafter, she resigned all her positions in the ANC.

On the NEC that suspended her were Baleka Kgositsile, then secretary general, and Nosiviwe Mapisa, current secretary general. Mandela saw them as part of a “cabal” plotting to destroy her. The next year, she had begun her stunning political rehabilitation by winning the presidency of the very Women’s League that had suspended her.

Winnie Mandela opened the very first NEC meeting she chaired, in early 1994, by accusing colleagues of disloyalty, claiming that she had in her possession a report from ANC security “proving” that a group from the previous NEC had met in Welkom to plot her downfall. “It was the first any of us had heard of this,” says one of the women. “But it set the tone of paranoia and back-biting from the start.”

Indeed, the Women’s League has turned, under her stewardship, from being a powerful lobby for gender issues to being a moribund and ineffective body that has failed to represent women’s issues either in parliament or to the government.

>From 1991 to 1993, when Kgositsile was secretary general, the league lobbied successfully for a 30 percent quota of elected female officials and for gender parity in negotiating teams at the World Trade Centre. Two of those who resigned last weekend — Kgositsile and Mavivi Manzini — were the ANC’s female negotiators. Furthermore, the league generated reams of policy — on subjects ranging from reproductive rights to land issues — that assisted the ANC in drafting its gender provisions of the reconstruction and development programme.

Most importantly, the Women’s League launched the National Women’s Coalition — a powerful national non- partisan womens’ lobby that was disbanded last year, largely due to the fact that the league, under its new political leadership of Winnie Mandela and Thandi Modise, decided to withdraw its support for it.

At the conference at which Mandela was elected in 1993, the NEC was mandated to come up with a programme of action. The work, however, has yet to be done. “The tragedy,” says one of those who resigned, “is that all this strife has rendered us stagnant. Instead of having a positive input on the RDP and being a strong lobby for gender rights in government, what have we been doing? Talking about setting up casinos for foreign tourists!”

The woman does not believe that she or any of her colleagues will rejoin the league executive for as long as Mandela is president: “I suppose we have come to see that our work in the league is not the only way to advance the cause of women. We are ministers and MPs; we’ll continue to do our work outside the league.”

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