Nelson Mandela's former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, is poised for a return to the centre stage of South African politics - and possibly a Cabinet job - after securing a top position on the African National Congress's list of future MPs.

The ANC list for the April 22 general election is headed by party president Jacob Zuma. South Africa's President, Kgalema Motlanthe, is second, followed by ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete and Finance Minister Trevor Manuel.

That Madikezela-Mandela comes next, ahead of many Cabinet members, suggests that she is seen as a crucial electoral asset and a possible future minister.

The rehabilitation and re-emergence of Madikizela-Mandela, 72, will be greeted with dismay and indignation in many quarters. After corruption allegations, she was dismissed after only 11 months as deputy minister of arts in the first post-apartheid government and convicted of fraud in 2003.

She had been appointed to her ministerial role despite a court case in 1991 in which she was found guilty of kidnapping and being an accessory to the death of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei - a township boy who fell foul of her vigilante group, the Mandela United Football Club.

Her candidature could raise constitutional problems. Her 2003 sentence for fraud and theft while president of the ANC women's league was reduced on appeal in July 2004 from five years to 3.

The South African constitution bars convicted people from taking up elected office until five years has elapsed after their completed sentence.

Constitutional expert Shadrack Gutto of the University of South Africa accused the ANC of taking advantage of a grey area in the law.

"The fact that Madikizela-Mandela never served time in prison is immaterial. She is not eligible to become a member of Parliament."

Paul Graham, executive director of the South African democracy institute, Idasa, said having Madikizela-Mandela high on the list would be a hugely popular move among grassroots ANC supporters.

"Winnie has an iconic status in the townships," he said.

"She will help the ANC gain votes from the poor - those who are fed up with the lack of service delivery and who might otherwise stop supporting the ANC."

The ANC would not be drawn on speculation about a possible Cabinet role for Madikizela-Mandela.

"The list simply means she is elected to Parliament," said spokesman Ishmael Mnisi.

"It will be up to President Zuma whether she will be in Cabinet."

Given Nelson Mandela's declining health, the ANC is likely to use the resonance of Madikizela-Mandela's anti-apartheid past as a tool in its bid to secure a two-thirds parliamentary majority next month.

The election has been complicated by the formation of a breakaway party from the ANC - Congress of the People (Cope) - comprising supporters of former President Thabo Mbeki.

The prominent role of Madikizela-Mandela in the election campaign will allow her party to emphasise its central role in the triumphant struggle against the apartheid regime. A television commercial released last week includes footage of Nelson Mandela leaving jail in 1990 with one hand clasped as a fist in the air and the other holding Winnie's hand.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe dismissed criticism that the ANC's selection of Madikizela-Mandela indicated low moral standards in the party.

"Our moral standards are derived from history and from what one does in society. Winnie is a grassroots person. She does a lot of community work - more than any of us," he said.

Now a social worker, Madikizela-Mandela, who was divorced from Nelson Mandela in 1996, is still known by many as the mother of the nation.

Her bravery, energy and constant presence in townships during and after apartheid earned her millions of fans.

The opposition Democratic Alliance said it would demand a clear ruling on Madikizela-Mandela's eligibility from the Independent Electoral Commission. The party also criticised the ANC for nominating MPs implicated in the "travelgate" scandal over the use of travel vouchers for personal trips.

MADIKIZELA-MANDELA: THE GREAT SURVIVOR

Nelson Mandela said Winnie made him "the loneliest man" after he left prison in 1990, until they separated two years later. He said that following his release after 27 years in jail he discovered that she had become cold and hypocritical.

Yet Madikizela-Mandela had by then won the hearts of the nation by her tireless campaigning for his release and for enduring the indignities the apartheid state inflicted on her, including internal exile in the grim country town of Brandfort. She was known for her firebrand rhetoric, and for endorsing the practice of "necklacing" (burning tyres around people's heads).

In 1990, her image was better known than her husband's. She was the mother of the nation. A social worker by training, she met lawyer Mandela in 1957. They married in 1958 and had two daughters, Zenani and Zindzi.

Many poor South Africans still see her as an ordinary woman, but an exceptional one. That image has survived several court challenges, including the shocking allegations that she ordered her bodyguard, Jerry Richardson, to abduct and kill 14-year-old Stompie Seipei in 1988.

Twice, in 1993 and 1997, she was elected president of the ANC Women's League. But she was not allowed a prominent role under President Thabo Mbeki and withdrew from the race to become ANC deputy president in 1997.

- OBSERVER