JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The wife of South Africa's most famous black leader went on trial yesterday on kidnapping and assault charges stemming from a 1988 case that ended in the death of a 14-year-old activist.
Looking composed and confident, Winnie Mandela sat silently in a small courtroom as her defense attorney argued that the kidnapping charges against her should be dropped because they had not been substantiated.
Mrs. Mandela and seven others have been charged with the brutal beating of four young men who were abducted from a Methodist church house in December 1988 and taken to Mrs. Mandela's Soweto home.
Four of the defendants have disappeared, prompting Judge M. S. Stegmann to issue warrants for their arrest and throwing the future of the trial into doubt. It was scheduled to continue today.
Nelson Mandela accompanied his wife to court, kissed her and sat in the public gallery behind her. He was surrounded by a dozen top leaders of South Africa's anti-apartheid movement, including Joe Slovo, general secretary of the South African Communist Party, and Jay Naidoo, general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and a half-dozen prominent members of the African National Congress.
"It [the trial] has political implications," said Chris Hani, head of the military wing of the ANC. "Mrs. Mandela is a leader of the ANC, and the regime is moving to criminalize her."
Mrs. Mandela, 56, whose reputation in the anti-apartheid community had suffered after the kidnapping case came to light in 1989, has won a number of important positions in the ANC since Mr. Mandela was released from prison last February and the organization was legalized. She has been chosen director of the ANC's social welfare department and was elected regional head of the ANC Women's League.
Mrs. Mandela had been denounced by anti-apartheid leaders in 1989 after the death of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi, whose body was found a few days after he and the others were taken from the Methodist home by Mrs. Mandela's bodyguards, the "Mandela Football Club."
The "coach" of the soccer club was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death last May by a Johannesburg judge who said there was sufficient evidence to show that Mrs. Mandela was present in her home during at least some of the beatings.
Three of the victims testified at the trial of Jerry Richardson that Mrs. Mandela was at her home the night they were taken there, that she beat them with her fists and a whip and that she allowed her bodyguards to continue beating them.
The victims said Mrs. Mandela accused Stompie of being a police informant. Mrs. Mandela, who has proclaimed her innocence and accused the government of harassment, once said the young men were taken from the church home because the priest there was engaging in homosexual acts with them.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Mandela have welcomed the trial as an opportunity for her to clear her name.
Mrs. Mandela became known over the years for her battles with the South African government, which at various times detained her, held her in solitary confinement, banished her to a conservative farming town and placed her under house arrest. She also has been known for controversial and militant %o statements which have occasionally been disavowed by more moderate ANC leaders.