Winnie Mandela confronts tough questioning in criminal trial

April 21, 1991|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- It has been a tough week for Winnie Mandela, the anti-apartheid movement's "mother of the nation" and wife of legendary black leader Nelson Mandela, who is one of the key figures in negotiations on South Africa's future.

Mrs. Mandela has come under intense questioning from a government prosecutor, who is seeking to prove that she participated in the 1988 kidnapping and beating of four young men in the black township of Soweto.

After four days on the witness stand, the often flamboyant, always outspoken Mrs. Mandela was the picture of composure. But the prosecutor had managed to chip away at her version of what happened to the four young men in her Soweto home. He also elicited responses that made Mrs. Mandela appear to be unconcerned about the welfare of the young men beaten on her property, one of whom was later found dead with his throat cut.

Mrs. Mandela testified that she was out of town doing social work when the four were brought to her home on Dec. 29, 1988, for their own protection. She portrayed her home as a refuge for township boys who were homeless or in trouble and said these four came to her home to escape a white homosexual priest who was abusing them at the Methodist home in Soweto, where the young men were living.

She said she was outraged to learn that rumors were spreading that she had kidnapped the youths, and she castigated "so-called leaders" of the black community who in 1989 denounced her conduct and blamed her for the death of Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, a 14-year-old activist who was one of the youths.

Mrs. Mandela said at first she dismissed the reports because "I knew I had not kidnapped or assaulted anyone," but she later learned that the youths were in fact beaten on her premises by members of the "soccer club," who lived in rooms behind her house.

Under cross-examination, she said she didn't bother to seek out the youths and ask if they were all right, although they were staying in rooms just outside her house. She said she did not ask a doctor to look at them, although two doctors visited her home while the rumors were circulating. She said her feeling was that the youths were in the care of the woman who had brought them to the Mandela house, a woman who is now standing trial alongside Mrs. Mandela.

Mrs. Mandela, Xoliswa Falati and Mrs. Mandela's former driver, John Morgan, are charged with four counts of kidnapping and four counts of assault. Mrs. Mandela's former bodyguard, Jerry Richardson, has already been convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of young Stompie.

Four other young men have jumped bail, apparently to avoid standing trial on the kidnapping and assault charges. Two of the four kidnap victims have testified that they were abducted from the Methodist minister's house and taken to Mrs. Mandela's house, where they were severely beaten by Mrs. Mandela and a group of her bodyguards.

The two said they were accused of sleeping with the white minister and that Stompie was accused of being a police informant, a role especially despised during the years when police were seen as tools to suppress black South Africans and maintain the nation's apartheid system.

The trial is being heard by a single white judge, Michael S. Stegmann, who sits in a small courtroom facing a phalanx of lawyers representing Mrs. Mandela and her co-defendants. He takes copious notes and occasionally interrupts to ask questions of his own as Mrs. Mandela is questioned by prosecutor Jan Swanepoel.

Justice Stegmann has a reputation as a competent, fair-minded judge, according to legal experts, many of whom say Mrs. Mandela is receiving a fair trial.

"It's fair once you accept the premise of apartheid," one lawyer said. "It's basically a white-run legal system. But given that context, I think this trial is being run fairly." He said that Mrs. Mandela had a vigorous defense, that the trial is being run according to regular procedures and that the witnesses apparently have not been coerced to testify.

Mrs. Mandela's supporters in the African National Congress, however, have charged that this is a political trial designed to damage Mrs. Mandela, her husband and the ANC.

Mrs. Mandela herself said she has been tried and found guilty in the press. Before the trial, she said she looked forward to the chance to present her side of the story and clear her name.

Legal sources say she might be able to do that, or at least win an acquittal, if there is reasonable doubt that she was involved in the crimes. Her lawyer, George Bizos, plans to present witnesses who will testify that Mrs. Mandela was in the town of Brandfort, 200 miles from Soweto, when the kidnapping and assaults took place.

Mrs. Mandela was banished to Brandfort, a small conservative town in the Orange Free State province, for nine years until 1985 when she returned to Soweto. The banishment was part of a pattern of arrests and harassment she was subjected to during the 27 years Mr. Mandela was in prison for his political activities against the government.

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