JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Winnie Mandela took the witness stand for the first time yesterday in her kidnapping and assault trial and said she was not even in Soweto when four young men were brought to her home there in December 1988.
Mrs. Mandela, the wife of South Africa's most prominent black leader, African National Congress Deputy President Nelson Mandela, said she knew nothing about a kidnapping or assault. She said she believed that the young men had come to her home for shelter after being sexually abused by a white Methodist minister.
Mrs. Mandela's appearance on the witness stand marked a dramatic point in the 2-month-old trial. A woman once known as "the mother of the nation," she is now trying to defend herself against charges that she was involved in the brutal beating of four young men, including a 14-year-old activist who was later found dead.
Two of the young men have testified that they were abducted from the minister's home in the black township of Soweto and taken to Mrs. Mandela's home, where they were repeatedly assaulted. They said that Mrs. Mandela accused the teen-age activist of being a police informer and that she interrogated the others about alleged homosexual activities at the minister's house.
Mrs. Mandela's former bodyguard, Jerry Richardson, has been convicted of murder in the death of the teen-ager, Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, while Mrs. Mandela and four others were each charged with four counts of kidnapping and four counts of assault.
In her testimony yesterday, Mrs. Mandela said that her home had become a refuge for troubled young men in Soweto and that it was not unusual for "17 or 18" youths to stay in the rooms in back of the house.
"My place was some kind of a refuge," she told the court.
She said the youths formed a soccer club, named it the Mandela United Football Club and chose Mr. Richardson as their coach. ** She said she did not become involved in the activities of the football club. Soweto residents have said in the past that the group terrorized the community.
On the night of the alleged abduction, Mrs. Mandela said she was in the town of Brandfort in the conservative province of Orange Free State, where she had been banished for nine years until she returned to Soweto in 1985. She said she stayed at the home of a schoolteacher that night and held meetings the next day about social work projects in Brandfort.
Mrs. Mandela is a trained social worker and holds the position of social welfare director for the ANC.
ANC officials have charged that Mrs. Mandela is being persecuted by the government as part of a campaign to damage the ANC.
Mrs. Mandela's lawyer, George Bizos, reminded the court of his client's long history of persecution by questioning her about the years she was banished, harassed or placed under house arrest by the South African authorities.
"I have never had the luxury of leading a life of leisure," she told a crowded courtroom as she recounted details of her clashes with the government over almost three decades. Her husband was a political prisoner during that period.