TOPICS > Politics

Facing the Past

December 4, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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PHIL PONCE: We’re joined by Richard Mkhondo, the Washington correspondent for Independent Newspapers of South Africa–he’s currently writing his second book on post-apartheid South Africa; and Charlotte Bauer, an international Nieman Foundation Fellow at Harvard University and the assistant to the editor of the Johannesburg Sunday Times. And welcome both.

Mr. Mkhondo, how extraordinary do you think the people in South Africa are finding it that the woman who was once called the mother of the nation was having to answer to these charges today?

RICH MKHONDO, Independent Newspapers, South Africa: Well, I think that’s what the duty of the Truth Commission is about. And people were expecting this, and they were looking forward to this, and I’m sure from tomorrow onwards there will be a lot of armchair critics, or even actual critics talking about her appearance. And it’s not surprising to many people.

PHIL PONCE: Charlotte Bauer, how extraordinary of an event was this?

CHARLOTTE BAUER, Sunday Times, Johannesburg: Well, I think it was extraordinary as a symbolic event. And I’ve spoken to the friends in South Africa this evening, and everybody’s quite deeply traumatized I think by what has happened at the Truth Commission this week. But I think we should also remember that these charges are not new. And Winnie was on trial in 1991 and was convicted of kidnaping and received a suspended sentence. If you look at the biography of Winnie Mandela, written by Emma Gilby, I mean, it’s all in there. So I think what was deeply significant about today’s hearings was that some of the witnesses who refused–for fear of intimidation to testify against Winnie in the 1991 attempted murder trial–have come forward because they feel the Truth Commission is a safe place for them to speak out. And I think that was the really significant part of this week’s events.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Mkhondo, how significant was it that she issued an apology, she made an apology in court? Was that the first time she’d done that?

RICH MKHONDO: Yes, it was the first time she’d done that. I think it was also predictable, but I think the apology was a little bit dragged from her. She was supposed to have actually started with it in her speech when she made the speech today, but, unfortunately, Bishop Tutu had to actually ask her to do it publicly. What is actually surprising also is the fact that Mrs. Sepe, whose son was supposedly killed in the hands of the football club actually came forward to hug and kiss Winnie. I think it’s a sign of either forgiveness or what the whole Truth Commission is about.

PHIL PONCE: Incidentally, I may have inadvertently referred to it as a court. It’s not a court.

RICH MKHONDO: It’s not a court.

PHIL PONCE: It’s something else. It’s kind of a–how would you describe it?

RICH MKHONDO: As a commission like we’ve had such commissions in El Salvador, in–we have one going on right now in Rwanda. And it’s sort of a combination of many commissions, including the many ones that you know in Europe, in Eastern Europe.

CHARLOTTE BAUER: “The O.J. Simpson of South Africa.”

PHIL PONCE: Ms. Bauer, what is your sense of how the public in South Africa is responding, or has responded to Ms. Mandela’s testimony? Do people believe her, do you think?

CHARLOTTE BAUER: I’m not sure whether it matters. I think Winnie has her supporters and her detractors. And from that point of view–although I wouldn’t want to push the comparison–she’s almost the O.J. Simpson of South Africa in that her guilt is not an issue for her supporters and for her detractors, as I have said before, you know, we’ve heard nothing new. And I’d just like to make a point about the apology. I mean, in a sense I think her apology was very ambivalent, about as ambivalent as Jiang Zemin’s sort of so-called maybe–was it an apology for the events of Tiananmen Square–I mean, she used the words–she admitted to some reckless disregard for the other view. I mean, what does she mean, the other view? I mean, we’re talking about the life of children here. So I’m not sure, you know, whether the guilt issue–guilty or not guilty–hasn’t already been played out in South Africa and that’s why it has more symbolic significance than anything else.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Mkhondo, do you agree with that assessment?

RICH MKHONDO: Yes, I agree with that assessment, however, you must remember one thing. There were a lot of facts. There was a lot of fiction. There were a lot of lies. I mean, it’s like a Hollywood movie with a lot of innuendo, and there were things about police spies. The two of Winnie’s fervent accusers, Katila Kalakulu and Jerry Richardson, have been found and proven, and they’ve agreed that they were police spies. Now, the question is how many people within South Africa are going to believe what they say? The other thing is, you must remember that a spy, to have been found to be a spy in South Africa was a kiss of death for many years, so, therefore, there are those who are going to believe what they say and there are those who are not going to believe what they said. So to the people of South Africa–to many of us who know Winnie–to many of us who lived during that time–I think what happened today is one other step for us to go forward, rather than to go back and it’s all over.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Mkhondo, what is your sense of what her continuing political viability might be as a result of all this?

RICH MKHONDO: It’s a little bit complicated, Phil, but what I can say is that Winnie will always be there. She has her supporters, as Charlotte said, and she has her detractors. If we change our electoral system and we actually elect people, rather than parties, and vote for parties, Winnie can do very well. Now, that we elect–we actually choose a party and the party allocates the vote to people, it’s highly unlikely that Winnie can hold a political office. But if that changes, I wouldn’t be surprised if people draft Winnie and she become one day some political figure. The point is Winnie represents a lot of people. You must remember that the poorest of the poor are the majority in South Africa. Winnie speaks their language, and she understands their feelings. She’s more afraid to speak out. And many ANC leaders are afraid to speak out because they are protecting their positions. Winnie’s not protecting any position at the moment.

PHIL PONCE: Ms. Bauer, do you agree that Ms. Mandela still has considerable political viability left?

CHARLOTTE BAUER: I absolutely agree with Rich. Winnie’s a very strong, very charismatic woman, with a huge support base. And there’s been a lot of media rhetoric going around this week about Winnie’s last stand. And somebody commented to me earlier–I mean, Winnie’s last stand will be on her death bed. I think she’s still going to be a big factor on the political landscape.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Mkhondo, something you said I’d like to follow up on. What is the extent–what is the sense of the support that you sense among middle class blacks in South Africa? Does it differ from the support she might have among the lower classes?

RICH MKHONDO: Yes. There is a lot of different opinions about Winnie. Those who understand her and those who actually look at where she comes from, what she represents, where she’s been, the suffering that she had to endure, many people actually feel very pitiful what happened to her. Even among the middle class–

PHIL PONCE: She herself was imprisoned and tortured?

RICH MKHONDO: Oh, yes. Yes. She herself was imprisoned and tortured, and she had to go through all these problems. Now, one other thing that we must bear in mind, it’s not as easy as people are trying to make it to be. It’s very difficult. It was a very difficult period. Now, imagine if you had twenty or twenty-five kids in your home who are supposed to be running away from apartheid, and then you were trying to protect them and you suddenly hear or discover that one of them is a spy. You’d be angry. And I’m sure Mrs. Mandela was angry. I’m sure her daughter also was angry. So it was a very trying time. That’s why she’s standing by what she says; that she didn’t do anything.

CHARLOTTE BAUER: I mean, I don’t–I wouldn’t necessarily go to those lengths to justify her actions, but where I would agree with Rich is that, you know, because Winnie Mandela is so well known–I mean, she came to New York City with her husband–there was a ticker tape parade–the media, the international media is focusing–you know, strongly on what she’s done. And if you look at the kind of inquisitors of the–regime in South Africa, I mean, the real criminals who ordered massacres and torture and mass detentions of hundreds of thousands of people, I mean, it’s almost like we, the media, are kind of ignoring them because this story is so much sexier, and I think that’s a shame.

RICH MKHONDO: She is quite right. The point I’m trying to make–not trying to justify what she did, but I’m trying to say that people should understand the circumstances–the circumstances under which we lived and under which she lived. And those were terrible times. The effect on President Mandela.

PHIL PONCE: And to what extent, if any, is President Mandela himself being affected by these allegations against his former wife?

RICH MKHONDO: Of course, he is going to be affected, but, as you know, President Mandela believes in the Truth Commission. Mrs. Mandela does not believe in the Truth Commission. Actually, she believes that the Truth Commission is full of all those people who were responsible for atrocities of the past, the investigators–she blamed them openly–to say that they are part of what she called the third force. So there’s a clear dividing line between Mrs. Mandela and Mr. Mandela. Mr. Mandela believes in it; Mrs. Mandela doesn’t believe in it probably because she is the victim.

PHIL PONCE: Ms. Bauer, what’s your sense of the extent to which Mr. Mandela might be affected by all this?

CHARLOTTE BAUER: I would just agree with Rich. I mean, he does believe in the Truth Commission, and that is the position he would have to maintain, but I’m sure it must still be quite traumatic for him because I don’t believe he has no feelings for his ex-wife. I’m sure it must be very hard for him.

PHIL PONCE: Charlotte Bauer, Rich Mkhondo, thank you both for joining us.

CHARLOTTE BAUER: Thank you.