Clemency for Mandela

May 15, 1991

If the case had involved anyone else in any other country, it's likely there would be no voices decrying the guilty verdict and six-year sentence meted out by a South African judge this week to Winnie Mandela for her part in the 1988 abduction and assault of four Soweto youths, one of whom was later found murdered near her home.

Despite South Africa's discriminatory criminal justice system, the evidence presented in court by government prosecutors was sufficient to warrant a finding of guilty, and the judge acted well within the law in imposing a prison term for Winnie Mandela's crimes. Even Mrs. Mandela's attorneys conceded she had received a fair trial.

Yet precisely because she is the wife of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, who is now engaged in delicate negotiations with South African President F.W. de Klerk's government aimed at bringing genuine multiracial democracy to their country, and because any move by the government against Mrs. Mandela inevitably will be seen as another example of official persecution, the controversy surrounding her trial unavoidably involves political overtones that can only make a peaceful resolution of South Africa's problems more difficult, if not impossible.

De Klerk could yet defuse the situation by a simple act of executive clemency. He could announce that, notwithstanding the outcome of the trial, he was commuting Mandela's sentence in the greater interest of preserving the dialogue between the government and the ANC. The conviction would stand, but the potential ongoing obstacle would be removed.

Difficult as it may be for de Klerk to convince his white constituents of the necessity for such an extraordinary intervention, it is probably the best way to sustain the fragile negotiating process that represents the last best hope of avoiding an Armageddon in South Africa.

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