After weeks of criticism and controversy, President Nelson Mandela 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 in recent weeks 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 seriously, 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 increase 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 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.
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” of the suffering his wife endured and the contributions she made in the 27 years he was imprisoned.