'The Mother of the Nation' On Trial for Kidnapping


February 03, 1991|By MILLARD ARNOLD

Nothing is more riveting than impending tragedy. Nothing is more wretched than a fall from grace. And so it is that Winnie Mandela, who for more than a quarter of a century has stood as a defiant symbol of strength and resistance to the evils of apartheid, is scheduled to enter a Johannesburg courtroom tomorrow and stand trial as a common criminal on eight counts of kidnapping and assault.

The charges against her arise from the death of Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, a 14-year-old political activist who was abducted by members of the "Mandela Football Club" (a soccer team), brought to Winnie's home, beaten and was later murdered by the team's coach. Her position is perilous; the press revelations are sensationally damning.

Her day in court will come, and the truth, or something approximating the truth, will be known. But whatever the outcome of Winnie's trial, it will do little to explain this complex and evocative woman who has become a modern day Medea.

What greater irony can there be for a woman who not long ago was endearingly referred to as "the Mother of the Nation" to now find herself facing trial for an assault leading to the murder of a child? What greater anguish can there be than a year after her husband's release from prison she should go on trial and face the possibility of incarceration herself? What are the reasons for the stunning plunge to the depths of scorn and ridicule to which she has now descended?

When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned 27 years ago, he was not only physically removed from political activity, he was silenced as well. In an effort to eradicate his massive appeal, the South African government would not allow him to publish any writings or to be quoted. Winnie was determined that Nelson would not be forgotten. Through her, his name would live on, and the struggle would continue.

She became politically active and, in so doing, was constantly harassed by the police. With the exception of one 18-month period, she was banned from public life for 23 years. Once, she was imprisoned while pregnant and was held in solitary confinement for nearly a year and a half. Inevitably, the cruelty to which she was subjected left a residue of bitterness that was as much a part of her as the name she cherished.

On June 16, 1976, Soweto, the large black ghetto outside of Johannesburg, erupted in rage as students protested against apartheid. From that point on, children would become the cutting edge of insurrection in South Africa, destroying all local authority and eventually rendering the townships "ungovernable."

Winnie possesses an indisputable love for children. Aware of that, and believing she was -- or could be -- behind the unrest, Winnie was banished from Soweto to Brandfort, a desolate community some 300 miles away, a place where she could not even speak the language of the people. For eight years, she was exiled internally.

Within the townships during this period, parental and traditional authority had broken down, and the government-imposed town councils were not recognized. By 1984, the "Young Lions" and "comrades" were the governing forces. In response, elements within the government trained black gangsters, established hit squads and used black surrogates to squash resistance and regain control over the townships.

The clashes between the comrades and government vigilante groups led to sheer anarchy. There was no law and order, as the police permitted roving gangs of thugs to ravage homes, terrorize the community and threaten or assassinate those political leaders who had not been jailed. Uncontrolled by the government and not trusted by the townships, the police were indelibly linked to the gang violence they condoned. It was a horrific struggle for survival; at the time, the worst recorded outbreak of unrest in South African history.

In retaliation, armies of young people roamed the streets, only to be gunned down or detained by the security police. Those who were detained were tortured. Many of those that were tortured became informants for the police.

As the community watched its children and friends decimated by police and marauding gangs, street committees were formed to dispense justice. Those who were found to have betrayed the struggle by divulging information, even if under duress and police pressure, had effectively sided with the oppressors. The penalty for betrayal was swift and ghastly: the betrayer was summarily "necklaced" -- trussed with automobile tires, doused with gasoline and set on fire.

It was undeniably repulsive, but the social fabric of the community had all but come unraveled. These were gruesome times, where the only authority was mob justice.

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