South African political figures are falling on a scale not experienced for years.
The most celebrated case is that of Winnie Mandela, "mother of the nation," who has become a serious embarrassment to the liberation struggle. Last week she was roundly condemned by democratic anti-apartheid organizations in South Africa.
Several prominent figures, for very different reasons, have also been in decline. Most notable is President Pieter W. Botha, who seems to be on the way out after his mid-January stroke, with younger white politicians coming to the fore and offering the country a somewhat different future.
The crashing sound of the mighty falling is perhaps symptomatic in a country that places enormous pressures on its leaders because it has not come to terms with its constitutional destiny.
Winnie Mandela's fall from grace has been gradual but steady ever since she returned to the sprawling township of Soweto in 1985 at the height of black unrest then sweeping the country. There had been growing criticism of her conduct and utterances, and this reached a crescendo last week with the controversy over her youthful "soccer team"--an ostensible group of bodyguards who stand accused of criminal acts, possibly including kidnaping and murder. The rows over her sayings and actions have caused embarrassment to the leadership of the African National Congress and to her husband, Nelson, imprisoned for a quarter of a century and, by contrast, a figure of quiet dignity.
The controversies are hugely enjoyed by the South African government, which has discovered that Winnie Mandela, if allowed to speak and move around freely, inexorably plays into its hands, propagandawise.
As Mandela's wife, she has had the highest possible national and international profile--perhaps an exaggerated one, considering the many people who quietly go about their work in the interest of liberation without attracting the same headlines--or, indeed, lightning.
The blacks of South Africa have for years looked up to her as a symbol of their future freedom. They have in the past been quick to forgive her lapses, but the row over the soccer team was the final straw for many, including the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the United Democratic Front. Both organizations repudiated her.
In past years she has been variously criticized for building a palatial home (though she maintained that she would not live there until her husband's release), for consulting with a conservative American lawyer to boost the Mandela name commercially (it is no secret that the royalties and revenues from the Mandela name have been big), and for ill-considered, extreme statements, notably her declaration in April, 1986: "Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country." That remark appeared to condone the very thing that responsible quarters in the African National Congress were tryingto stop: the gruesome necklace form of death of informers and others, by placinga flaming tire around the victim's neck.
At the height of her persecution at the hands of the government and of right-wingers there was a national campaign to provide her with protection. That was a spontaneous, responsible and genuine movement, enjoying support in the highest church and community circles. But the soccer team is something different. From accounts, it is little more than a gang of ruffians.
Much has to be cleared up still, but it is obvious that Winnie Mandela's reputation has been destroyed.
To what extent it will rub off on the ANC remains to be seen. The organization has moved rapidly to distance itself, to a degree, from Winnie Mandela. The ANC was founded in 1912, and has had many vicissitudes in its 77-year history, and the Winnie Mandela brouhaha is small in comparison with others. Much more serious for the ANC is a discernible shift in the balance of power in the past year or so. With the Southern African peace settlement, the ANC stands to lose important guerrilla bases in Angola. Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's singular lack of interest in getting embroiled in regional ideological conflicts, after dragging himself from Afghanistan, is likely, similarly, to operate against the ANC's interests. The "revolution-that-wasn't," the unrest of 1984-86 in South Africa, has left many in the black opposition bruised, embittered and disillusioned. This rubs off on the ANC.
Moreover, the election of new, younger men to head the ruling National Party could also be a blow to the guerrilla cause because new leaders might be more pragmatic than Botha and might move further in offering blacks an acceptable power-sharing deal. A growing debate among those in the extraparliamentary opposition will be whether to rethink their total boycott of government-created political structures, including Parliament, and also their stance in favor of full-scale economic sanctions against South Africa.
Hard-line positions could be under pressure from the pragmatists. It is not lost on observers that the fallen Winnie Mandela had nailed her colors firmly to the hard-line position. Splits in the already divided black-liberation movement cannot be ruled out.
The drama surrounding Winnie Mandela's conduct could turn out to be but a small part of a wider canvas--a picture of both confusion and opportunity for South Africans.