JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The trial of Winnie Mandela, wife of a prominent leader and herself a symbol of anti-apartheid defiance, produced a week of bizarre events that reflect on the woman, her husband and the most important black political group in South Africa.
Once dubbed Mother of the Nation for boldly resisting government harassment, Mrs. Mandela now faces eight counts of kidnapping and assault in a case that involved the alleged beating of four young men in her home in 1988.
One teen-ager died, and the other three victims were set to testify last week against Mrs. Mandela and her former bodyguards, a group that allegedly bullied and terrorized the township of Soweto.
But the mysterious disappearance of one of the witnesses -- who apparently was abducted from a Methodist Church parsonage last Sunday -- brought a strange new twist to the case. Newspapers charged that Mafia-style tactics were being used to get Mrs. Mandela off the hook and to avoid embarrassment for the African National Congress, the organization with which the Mandela name is so closely linked.
"Al Capone would have approved the abduction of one witness and the terrorizing of two others in the Winnie Mandela trial," the Star newspaper wrote.
The two other witnesses refused to testify after Gabriel Mekgwe, 22, disappeared, and the trial was delayed because the state's case virtually had collapsed. But the fallout from last week is likely to haunt Mrs. Mandela and tarnish the ANC for some time to come.
"We will note two landmark moments that signal a major shift in the balance within the ANC," said the liberal Weekly Mail, normally a strong supporter of the ANC. "The first was the appointment of Winnie Mandela to head the Department of Social Welfare, despite the fact that she was facing the charges that brought her to court this week.
"The second was the apparent decision of the ANC leadership to identify themselves strongly with her plight, picturing her as no more than a victim of apartheid and casting doubt on the credentials of her accusers. Now, as witnesses are intimidated into silence and disappearances become the order of the day, the whole organization is tarnished."
When Mrs. Mandela came to court Feb. 4, she was accompanied by a dozen top leaders of the ANC and affiliated organizations. They said it was a political trial designed to hurt the ANC. The prosecutor said "ordinary common-law crimes" were involved, not political ones.
The charges arise from the December 1988 abduction of four young men from a Methodist Church parsonage, where they lived with a minister who worked with traumatized or troubled boys. Mrs. Mandela has said she was informed that the minister was sexually abusing the young men and that the men were brought to her house to get them away from the minister.
The Soweto community told a different story at the time about the Mandela United Football Club, a group of up to 30 young men who surrounded Mrs. Mandela after she returned to Soweto in 1985 from years of official banishment. Soweto residents said her team of protectors were thugs who unleashed a reign of terror in the township.
After the kidnapping from the Methodist Church and the discovery of the beaten body of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, the community denounced Mrs. Mandela and her club.
"We are outraged at Mrs. Mandela's obvious complicity in the recent abductions," said a 1989 statement issued by the leaders of most of South Africa's major black organizations. The statement packed tremendous punch at the time, damaging Mrs. Mandela's image around the world.
But lately, Mrs. Mandela has been on the rise. She was elected to several local and regional positions within the ANC in addition to being chosen social welfare director, an appointment that caused outrage among social workers.
She is a popular speaker, especially among young radicals who take delight in her outspoken radicalism at a time when the ANC is trying to carve out an image as a non-racial, pro-democracy organization that prefers the negotiating table to the battlefield.
Mrs. Mandela is also flamboyant and stylish, in total contrast to another mother who took the public stage last week. Joyce Mananki Seipei, slain Stompie's mother, appeared at a news conference last week called by another group of young men loyal to Winnie Mandela.
A plain, uneducated woman who lives in a small shack in the rural township of Tumahole, Mrs. Seipei sat squeezed between four young men who introduced themselves as leaders of the local ANC branch. About 30 other ANC "comrades" crowded into the back of the room.
The young men said Mrs. Seipei was a card-carrying member of the ANC, and they produced a membership card, which was passed around the room.
Mrs. Seipei was asked if she thought Mrs. Mandela was involved in her son's death. A comrade answered, after a brief consultation with the woman in her native Sotho language, "She has no comment."
At one point, Mrs. Seipei seemed under great strain, and she wiped her eyes repeatedly with a pink tissue.
The comrades said youths who identified themselves as Stompie's friends two years ago and who called Mrs. Mandela a killer must have been agents provocateurs.
"Tumahole has always been supportive of the Mandelas," one said.
He was contradicted by graffiti on a brick wall one block away. "Winnie is a murderer. She killed Stompie," said the huge black letters. The messages had been scratched over but were still legible. "Winnie is a Killer. Killer Winnie."