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SAfrican Poet Fights Robbery Charge

March 8, 1999

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) _ He was the ``people’s poet,″ the bard of black resistance who performed at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration and concert halls around the world.

Foreign journalists sought him out during the struggle against apartheid. Literary critics studied him as an important new voice in South African literature.

Now, Mzwakhe Mbuli (pronounced em-ZWA-kay em-BOOL-ee) finds himself with another sort of epithet: bank robber.

One of South Africa’s best-loved artists is on trial for allegedly stealing 15,000 rand ($2,500) from a First National Bank branch in Pretoria with two of his bodyguards on Oct. 28, 1997. Denied bail, he has been in prison since.

His trial sessions draw hundreds of supporters. President Nelson Mandela’s former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman have come. Close aides to Mandela and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki have visited Mbuli in jail.

The government has pricked up its ears because Mbuli’s defense rests on some potentially explosive claims.

Mbuli, 38, testified in early February that he may have been framed for having details about the involvement of top government officials in drug smuggling.

Just days before his arrest, Mbuli told the court, he met with a local official of the governing African National Congress party and said he wanted to pass on the information personally to Mandela.

Mbuli wouldn’t reveal any names, however. His defense lawyer said doing so publicly could ``disrupt public order.″ But the judge refused to hear Mbuli in private. Mbuli has offered no other proof to back up his claim.

On the stand, Mbuli appeared subdued and very much unlike the animated performer who once accused the prosecutor and judge of racism during another court appearance.

Wearing a midnight-blue tunic, he kept his 6-foot-4-inch frame hunched over, speaking softly and tersely.

A government spokesman, Joel Netshitenzhe, said Mbuli’s trial should be treated like ``any other criminal case.″ Once it is over, Mandela ``will not refuse to deal with him,″ he said, without elaborating.

The trial is in recess until March 19 and the judge is expected to give his verdict 10 days after that. If convicted, Mbuli could face between 10 and 15 years in prison, defense attorney Wessie Wessels said.

The evidence against him is circumstantial. He was arrested two blocks from the bank, minutes after the robbery, with his two co-defendants.

Police said they found three 9 mm pistols, a hand grenade and ammunition in their car, plus a bag with 13,000 of the 15,000 rand just stolen from the bank.

Mbuli said he had driven to Pretoria after one of his bodyguards received a phone call from someone who said he had information about an attempt to kill Mbuli two weeks earlier.

Mbuli acknowledges one of the pistols police found was licensed to him and the other to a co-defendant. He says he doesn’t know where the third came from, or the grenade or money for that matter. Wessels suggested it was planted.

``On what basis would a man of his stature go to a bank in broad daylight ... driving his own car, without disguising himself, rob the bank and not get away from the scene?″ the lawyer said. ``That’s preposterous.″

Mbuli’s many fans agree.

``He is a good man,″ said Prudence Thobekile, who was waiting outside the courtroom recently for a glimpse of the poet. ``His songs have so many messages, especially to blacks. That is why we support him.″

Mbuli’s career began in the early 1980s when he started reciting poems at the funerals of anti-apartheid activists. His first album, ``Change is Pain″ in 1987, was banned by the white government. Mbuli was jailed several times and he spent six months in solitary confinement.

His following swelled. More albums followed featuring his recitations over African musical rhythms.

``A very anguished nation took great heart from the things he said,″ said Mark Loeb, a friend. ``His poetry was spot on and people loved him.″

In post-apartheid South Africa, he wrote a song for a state railway ad campaign, contributed to charities and versified against drugs, AIDS, political violence and corruption.

``This makes him dangerous to any government,″ Loeb said. ``I don’t think since days of Shakespeare there’s ever been a walking, talking poet of the people.″

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