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Wednesday, December 3, 1997 Published at 16:23 GMT

image: [ BBC analyst Richard Downes ] Winnie Mandela at the Truth Commission

Richard Downes
Reporting from Johannesburg

It's been a dramatic week in South Africa at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the body set up to establish what really happened during the apartheid era. At the tiny social services centre in Johannesburg where the hearings are being held, it's been the turn of Winnie Madikizela Mandela to face her accusers. The former wife of President Nelson Mandela heard allegations from former friends that she ordered murders, participated in beatings and assaults and kidnapped children. Our Southern Africa correspondent Richard Downes has been at the commission.

If it wasn't for the gravity of the allegations made against her, I would have taken great pleasure in enjoying the presence of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at the hall in Johannesburg. Every day brings a new fashion extravanganza with her. On Monday it was a royal blue suit, on Tuesday she wore an African-influenced dress, all bright and colourful and on Wednesday an office suit, demure and sombre. And every day a different set of stunning jewellery - even a new pair of glasses. This is a woman with presence - a woman who walks into the room and everyone looks and whispers "it's Winnie".

At 63, Winnie Mandela has been through more in her life than a roomful of women her age. From her early twenties she threw herself into the struggle against the apartheid regime. When Nelson Mandle first saw her, at a bus stop, he was overcome by her beauty. This is what he said "When I first saw her I wanted to have her as my wife. Her spirit, her passion, her wilfulness. I felt all these things the first time I saw her". When she came to his office by chance a week later, he asked her out and proposed to her. A whirlwind romance indeed - but one that came to an end when Nelson Mandela told a Johannesburg court that ever since his release from prison she had not come to him in his bed once while he was awake. He said he didn't want the court to press him any further because he would be forced to reveal many things about Winnie that would embarrass her. The court did not press him.

But this week Winnie's embarrassment must have been profound. Day after day friends arrived at the truth commission. They avoided looking directly at Winnie Mandela and they told Archbishop Tutu's panel that Winnie was involved directly and indirectly in eight murders, also in disappearance and kidnappings - in total more than 20 crimes. Some big names in South Africa turned up - including Bishop Peter Storey and Frank Chikane, the top adviser to South Africa's next president.

They were by turns impressive and disappointing but almost everyone had information that presented a damning picture of life in Winnie Mandela's household in the late 1980s. It was a place where fear reigned supreme - where young men under Mrs Mandela's control ruled the roost. They terrorised the neighbourhood and as individuals they have been convicted of murder, assault and kidnapping. So serious were the problems at Mrs Mandela's house that the rest of the liberation movement, fighting to overthrow the apartheid regime, disowned her in 1989.

The most powerful testimony of the week for me came from probably the most modest witness of all - Pumile Dlamini. She testified that she shared a boyfriend with Winnie Mandela - against her own will it's said - and Mrs Mandela became jealous. One day she summoned Pumile. She beat her. A week later Mrs Mandela took Pumile away from her home and started a five-hour assault - all this when Pumile was four months' pregnant. When she did give birth it was to a son with severe learning difficulties and emotional problems. Pumile blames Winnie for her son's problems.

And so Winnie Mandela sat there as the allegations of past misdeeds were resurrected. For five days she heard her accusers and it must have taken a Herculean effort, on her part, not to respond. When she gets her chance we will know whether the words of her ex-husband are still relevant - the words again were spirit, passion, wilfulness.

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