JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africa's latest drama, the upcoming trial of Winnie Mandela on charges of kidnapping and assault, is expected to create a hardship for the country's most prominent black leader, Nelson Mandela, at a time when he is under increasing political pressures.
Mrs. Mandela has been ordered to appear in court today to be formally charged in connection with the December 1988 abduction and beating of four young men at her home in the black township of Soweto. Her former bodyguard was convicted and sentenced to death last month for the murder of one of the young men, a 14-year-old activist named Stompie Moeketsi.
"Obviously no movement can afford this kind of trial," said Vincent Mpai, a political science professor at the University of the Western Cape. "It will be a difficult moment."
He called the case "an untidy mess" and said it was bound to be a distraction for Mr. Mandela, a key player in South Africa's political reform process, and for his anti-apartheid organization, the African National Congress.
Mr. Mpai said the ANC leader could be expected to stand by his wife during this episode and probably would not come under any criticism for doing so.
"If anything, I think he will get a lot of sympathy," Mr. Mpai said in an interview. "No one is going to question him for backing his wife. I think the worst he can suffer is the personal trauma of having a member of his family on trial."
At the time of the abduction, Mr. Mandela was in prison serving a life sentence for his political activities. Since his release in February, he has been at the center of negotiations with the government of President F. W. de Klerk, who has said he intends to end apartheid and oversee the drafting of a new constitution.
But the talks are at a crucial point, having been threatened by the eruption of violence in black townships around Johannesburg. And Mr. Mandela is under pressure to help bring an end to the violence.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Mandela has said she welcomes the chance to clear her name after being "tried and found guilty in the media." She has struck a characteristically defiant pose in response to the charges.
Once dubbed "mother of the nation" by anti-apartheid activists, Mrs. Mandela, 56, is a controversial figure whose reputation in recent years has not been as consistently favorable among black South Africans as her husband's.
In 1989, after reports of the abduction and beating surfaced, she was denounced by much of the anti-apartheid community. But since Mr. Mandela's release, she has recovered her previous status and has even been named to a high-profile position in the ANC, director of the social welfare department. The appointment has left some ANC activists grumbling privately that she might be her own first case.
Mr. Mpai said that despite Mrs. Mandela's unpopularity among some older members of the anti-apartheid community, she retains tremendous popularity among militant youth.
She has a reputation for standing up to the authorities through decades of harassment while her husband was in jail, and she has a recent history of militant statements, such as her pronouncement in the United States that she would be the first to go back to the bush and take up arms if negotiations with the government fail. She typically turns up at mass rallies wearing a military-style dress and has recently appeared in public wearing designer camouflage fatigues.
Mr. Mpai said he believes Mrs. Mandela was hardened by years of harassment by South African authorities, who kept her under some form of restriction or banishment during most of her husband's 27-year imprisonment.
Helen Suzman, the retired member of Parliament known for her doggedly liberal stands, offered a similar assessment.
"I think Winnie is more bitter than Nelson," she said. "It's easy for people to condemn her, and no one can condone the silly things she's said. But you have to realize this is a woman who has had an unbearable burden."
On the other hand, Mrs. Suzman said, the attorney general had little choice but to prosecute Mrs. Mandela if he found sufficient evidence of a crime.
"The law is the law," she said, noting that both the Mandelas have said publicly that Mrs. Mandela should have her day in court.
Seven members of Mrs. Mandela's former bodyguard, a group known as the Mandela United Football Club, have been charged with abduction and assault in connection with the case. Three of the assault victims testified during the trial of Jerry Richardson, the chief bodyguard, that Mrs. Mandela whipped and beat them and accused them of collaborating with the government. They said she then allowed her guards to continue the assault, which ended in Stompie Moeketsi's death.