The Crimes of Winnie Mandella

May 14, 1991

The conviction of Winnie Mandela for kidnapping and being an accessory to assault was one more blow to the internal peace process in South Africa. It was probably both inevitable and called-for by events of a radically different, though very recent, past. And it is probably not trumped up. The sentencing of the convicted -- a child welfare expert who was South Africa's first diploma'd black social worker 36 years ago -- is awaited.

Through South Africa's history, the just and the unjust, the corrupt and the incorruptible, have coexisted. Here a white institution of justice was catching up inexorably to events that happened a little more than two years ago in a climate of white-imposed black anarchy, where the judicial institutions were the enemy and the highest-minded citizens were outlawed.

In that context, when P. W. Botha was still the white president and the venerable Nelson Mandela was in prison seemingly for life, Mrs. Mandela was both "the mother of the nation," and alone and vulnerable. She was also, in the views of some other people in the African National Congress, too big for her britches and out of control. She tolerated a bodyguard of youths who both protected her and terrorized others in Soweto.

That was as recent as December 1988, when some of her associates kidnapped four youths and beat them; one, Stompei Seipei, age 14, died. Mrs. Mandela's driver was convicted of his murder and sentenced to death. Her complicity was a matter of dispute. Now, after a lengthy trial, Judge M. S. Stegman has convicted her of conspiracy in kidnapping and assault, and branded her "a calm, composed, unblushing and unprincipled liar." Unforgivable things did transpire at her home, almost certainly with her knowledge. Calm, composed, unblushing and unprincipled lying is a technique of survival learned by those under oppression.

Since Mr. Mandela emerged from prison to negotiate the South African future as an acknowledged national leader, Mrs. Mandela's role has shrunk back to one she could handle. He clearly believes that she was made to suffer for his prominence. She is now discredited -- last month she lost election in a secret ballot for president of the ANC Women's League -- which to some extent must harm him as well.

That is a shame because he is indispensable to any constructive future. But the conviction of Winnie Mandela is not the leading tragedy in South Africa today. That is the communal fighting between ANC and rival Inkatha adherents, between Xhosa and Zulu, which threatens to shatter any chance of peaceful dialogue and to invite the reimposition of police state controls. The humiliation of Winnie Mandela distracts South Africans from what really matters.

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