BACK in the late 1980s, she was perhaps the most famous woman on Earth. In her early fifties, but still tall and beautiful, Winnie Mandela was widely revered at home and abroad. South Africa’s "Mother of the Nation" was the wife of one of the world’s few authentic political heroes, Nelson Mandela, who was still serving a life sentence for his leadership of the struggle against apartheid.
Winnie had suffered harsh reprisals for the beliefs of Nelson, with whom she lived for only five weeks in their first four years of marriage before he was arrested and imprisoned on Robben Island.
She, too, was frequently imprisoned, once for 17 months. For one period of 160 days, she was in solitary confinement in a dark cell and not allowed a bath or shower.
In 1977, security police sent her into internal exile in the bleak Orange Free State town of Brandfort - South Africa's equivalent of the Soviet Gulag. The eight years in Brandfort were intended to render Winnie a ‘non-person’, but the National Party game plan backfired, focusing worldwide attention on her as a symbol of white oppression. She was seen as a heroic one-woman resistance army and became the subject of tens of thousands of hagiographic newspaper profiles, several sycophantic books and three prospective Hollywood movies.
On release from Brandfort in 1985, Winnie returned to her home in Soweto. During her absence, 600-plus groups had allied together as a surrogate ANC under the title of the United Democratic Front (UDF). Winnie decided to have nothing to do with the UDF and formed her own personal vigilante group - the Mandela United Football Club (MUFC).
The club was soon behaving menacingly towards the community and took the role of internal policemen, with Winnie as judge. A common punishment for community misdemeanours was the carving of the letter M on the torsos of the ‘guilty’. Acid was smeared into the wounds so the brand was etched permanently into flesh.
Winnie’s descent began when three Soweto youths disappeared - one was found murdered, the other two presumed murdered at the hands of club members. One of the youngsters was Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, 14, a pawn in an elaborate sting by Winnie to entrap a popular white Methodist minister, Paul Verryn, in a homosexual honey-trap.
Verryn was a radical with an intrepid record of opposition to apartheid who sheltered youths on the run from the police. Winnie was jealous - her white rival had begun attracting more funds from abroad for community projects than her football club.
Winnie kidnapped Stompie and, with young men from her club, beat him to near death when he denied he had ever been touched by Verryn, who still administers to the poor in Soweto. Stompie’s body was found on waste ground near Winnie's home, and in a sensational trial in 1991 she was sentenced to six years imprisonment for kidnap and assault - a punishment reduced to a fine on appeal.
When Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, he appointed his wife a deputy minister, then sacked her for incompetence and allegations she had pilfered from the ANC Women's League.
In 1996, he divorced Winnie on grounds of her serial infidelity, which deeply humiliated him.
A family member said Winnie had assaulted Nelson more than once during the short time they shared the same house.
Winnie paid heavily for her past when in 1997 South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) subpoenaed her to face a mountain of evidence from Soweto mothers and fathers and former club members who testified to her involvement in dozens of murders of township boys and girls.
TRC chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu said the police were free to initiate new charges against Winnie, who was by now being called the Mugger of the Nation.
Since then, Winnie has been accused of many other scams that have never reached court until the latest fraud and theft case. While still an ANC MP - until yesterday - she battled constantly against her own party, causing endless embarrassment to President Mandela and his successor, Thabo Mbeki.