The Lady by Emma Gilbey Jonathan Cape, $325 THE extraordinary depth and infinite detail of American journalist Emma Gilbey's biography of Winnie Mandela places The Lady among the most successful and readable non-fiction works to come out of South Africa in many years. The estranged wife of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and African National Congress president Nelson Mandela is undoubtedly one of the most influential and, at the same time, one of the most feared figures playing out the final scenes of South Africa's imminent transition to black majority rule. Ms Gilbey's minutely researched book leaves the reader in no doubt why. The Lady reads like a thriller; Winnie Mandela's life has been marked by an almost unbelievable series of staggering events which many thought culminated in her conviction on charges of kidnapping and her involvement in the death of a young black boy in 1989. Events this month again proved wrong those who had wished the Winnie Mandela chapter finally closed: she was elected as president of the ANC's powerful Women's League, a position which almost guarantees her a place in a post-April 1994 South African Cabinet. Even as a young child, Winnie displayed traits which were to mark her throughout a stormy career, using whatever tactics were necessary to settle disputes and fights with her siblings. Once she fashioned a dangerous weapon from a tin and used it to finally conquer a sister during a fight. But during her formative years she also displayed traits which were to win her admiration and respect too; complete loyalty to her family who she helped raise in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. A beauty of great stature and with the blood of Xhosa chiefs in her veins, Winnie relentlessly pursued an early career as a welfare worker while fending off the advances of a succession of suitors, including Kaiser Matanzima, a paramount chief destined to become dictator of the Transkei Republic, one of South Africa's nominally independent homelands on the eastern coastal belt of South Africa. Nelson Mandela, 16 years her senior and already separated from his first wife, was to be the influence which changed Winnie's life completely. Older, more mature, and already an influential figure in the ANC, Mandela nurtured Winnie's interests almost like a protective father and she responded by taking greater cognisance of the direction in which her husband's political career was leading them. As Mandela and his ANC colleagues rallied greater support among Africans determined to break the dehumanising bonds of apartheid, the white government applied greater pressure on him and other black community leaders. Bannings and house arrests became part of their lives and Mandela responded by becoming more and more reactionary. When Mandela was eventually imprisoned for life, Winnie inexorably found herself sucked into the power vacuum left by the imprisonment or exile of virtually every notable black leader in the country. Ms Gilbey sketches a life in which Winnie had a succession of young lovers until she, too, was banished from Johannesburg and forcibly implanted with her daughter Zinzi in the black township on the outskirts of the Free State town of Brandfort, a move which was to become instrumental in pushing Mrs Mandela on to the world stage. Living in atrocious conditions and under constant surveillance by security police, the world spotlight fell on the dusty township as Winnie set up a creche for the children of the village, brought in medical help on a regular basis and launched a self-help gardening scheme to overcome the extreme poverty in the village. International food donations began to pour in and high profile visitors trickled down to the shanty town in a slow but steady stream. Only after her eventual release from banishment did Winnie truly break out, her banning orders finally dropped. Back in Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, Winnie formed the organisation which was to become the ANC's greatest embarrassment . . . the Mandela United football team. This was little more than Winnie's private army and its power-mad excesses led inexorably to kidnappings, killings and torture of anybody deemed to be a threat to Winnie or her aspirations. When the young Stompie Moeketsi Seipei was kidnapped from the home of a township priest by the football team, imprisoned in Winnie's home and eventually brutally murdered, it seemed the roof had fallen in on Winnie. Prosecuted by a reluctant government which by now had already freed Nelson Mandela and feared the embarrassing repercussions of the trial of Mandela's wife, Winnie was finally convicted of kidnapping. The leaders of her football team were sentenced to death or life imprisonment. For South Africa the Winnie Mandela saga is far from over. Her election by the ANC Women's League last week has once again put the spotlight firmly on the woman who many believe today sees herself as the natural successor to Nelson Mandela. Ms Gilbey's book is an epic account of Winnie Mandela's life, and one which will not fail to astound all interested in South African politics with its detailed insights into the dark recesses of the country's most sinister era.