After weeks of criticism and controversy, South African President Nelson Mandela on Monday personally fired his estranged wife, Winnie, as a deputy Cabinet minister for her attacks on government policy and her role in a series of embarrassing scandals.
The long-expected dismissal was both the most dramatic and most difficult decision that Mandela has made since he led the African National Congress to victory in the country’s founding democratic elections 11 months ago.
Mrs. Mandela is one of the country’s most divisive political figures. She maintains a broad, potentially volatile power base of impoverished, dispossessed blacks who still revere her militant defiance of the white authorities who persecuted and imprisoned her under apartheid.
But she has dominated headlines recently for criticizing the pace of government reforms, for splitting the ranks of the ANC’s Women’s League and for defying the president by leaving on a state visit to West Africa against his orders.
Most serious, police are investigating allegations that she accepted bribes and kickbacks in exchange for steering government housing contracts.
Mrs. Mandela had no immediate public response to her firing as deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology. But analysts said the sacking, the first of a senior official in the new government, may serve to raise her profile rather than lower it.
She will retain a highly visible platform for her populist rhetoric and radical politics, since the dismissal from government does not affect her leadership of the Women’s League, her spot on the ANC National Executive Committee or her status as a member of Parliament.
“Now she can criticize freely,” said a Western diplomat sympathetic to Mrs. Mandela. “And she leaves as a martyr.”
Mrs. Mandela, 60, is already the government’s most outspoken black critic. At township rallies over the weekend, for example, she made a thinly veiled attack on her husband by denouncing the money spent “to entertain” Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in a weeklong state visit that ended Saturday.
Robert Schrire, a political analyst in Cape Town, said the dismissal marked the start of Mrs. Mandela’s campaign to succeed her husband, now 76, after he retires from office in 1999. The heir apparent is Mandela’s executive deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, a far more moderate figure than Mrs. Mandela.
“This clearly is the beginning of the struggle to influence the ANC after Mandela goes,” Schrire said. “In a sense, this is a struggle for succession. Winnie Mandela has staked her claim.”
Other analysts said Mrs. Mandela, a loner by nature who has antagonized most of her former allies, will find it difficult to create the alliances and organization necessary for a serious political challenge.
The president, appearing somber and drawn, announced the dismissal at a brief news conference at his Cape Town office. He said he had acted only after “much reflection” on the suffering his wife endured and the contributions she made in the 27 years he was imprisoned.
“This decision has been taken both in the interests of good government and to ensure the highest standards of discipline among leading officers in the government of national unity,” Mandela said.
In a sign of the sensitivity of the issue, Mandela secretly met leaders of major black-led civic, labor and political organizations Friday at ANC headquarters in Johannesburg to gauge their views.
“We were all of the opinion this was long overdue,” said Penrose Ntlonti, national general secretary of the South African National Civics Organization. The group provides a de facto government in many of the squatter camps and townships where Mrs. Mandela is most popular.
In a stunning repudiation by her former allies, Ntlonti joined leaders of the ANC, the South African Communist Party and the Council of South African Trade Unions at a news conference late Monday to affirm “unequivocal support” for the decision. The ANC Youth League, another longtime bailiwick of Mrs. Mandela, issued a separate statement of support for the president.
There were no reported protests or other incidents in the squatter camps and slums around Johannesburg where Mrs. Mandela is most idolized. But several people expressed outrage at Phola Park, a squalid shantytown frequently visited by “Mama Winnie,” as she is known to many poor blacks.
“With Winnie Mandela gone, there can be no stability and peace in South Africa,” warned Albert Booysen, 42, an unemployed laborer who has lived in the camp for three years. “She has worked hard for the freedom of our people.”
Alan Reynolds, a spokesman at Mrs. Mandela’s office in Cape Town, said he had telephoned her with the news after a messenger handed him a brief letter announcing her dismissal. Reynolds criticized Mandela for not having the “courtesy or the courage” to confront his wife in person.
Mandela and his wife publicly separated in April, 1992, after 37 years of marriage, shortly after she was convicted of kidnaping in a case in which four youths were abducted and taken to her Soweto home. One of the youths was later found beaten to death.
Although Mandela once wrote passionate letters of love to his wife from prison, the iciness of their current relations was apparent in the curt, eight-line dismissal letter. It says she has been fired “with immediate effect” and advises her of “standard procedures governing the period of grace within which certain ministerial benefits are to cease.”
The letter carries the salutation “Dear Mrs. Mandela” and is signed “N. R. Mandela.”