ANC in quandary over conviction of apartheid fighter Mandela

May 19, 1991|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The African National Congress is faced with the difficult question of what to do about Winnie Mandela after her conviction on kidnapping and assault-related charges.

Mrs. Mandela is not only the wife of the ANC's deputy president, she holds several important positions in the anti-apartheid organization and has a following of her own, mostly among the young, more radical wing of the organization.

In addition, her name is synonymous with the fight against injustice in South Africa, partly because of Nelson Mandela's long incarceration for his fight against apartheid and partly because of Mrs. Mandela's own struggle against the white regime while her husband was behind bars.

Because of her role in the fight against apartheid, her conviction for the common crimes of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault puts the ANC in a difficult spot. It also raises questions about how the organization will respond to both her conviction and her political aspirations within the anti-apartheid movement.

"She is still head of the ANC's social welfare desk. That's probably going to worry a lot of people," said Heather Regenass, a social worker who heads a national program that works to rehabilitate criminals. "What is the ANC going to do? Is she going to be kept as head of the social welfare desk? Is she going to become a figurehead? Or will they remove her?"

Mrs. Mandela also is head of the ANC Women's League for the region that includes Johannesburg, and last month she ran for the national presidency of the Women's League. In the first sign that the kidnapping case has damaged her reputation, she lost that election by a wide margin.

"The case did not come under discussion, but I think it was probably in the back of a lot of people's minds," said one Women's League member.

Another sign that the anti-apartheid movement is backing away from Mrs. Mandela was the ANC's official response to her conviction and six-year prison sentence. The organization expressed "dismay" at the conviction and said, "We elect to leave the matter in the hands of the courts." Mrs. Mandela is appealing her conviction and is free on bail.

The response stood in sharp contrast to the initial reaction of the ANC's National Executive Committee, the decision-making body for the organization, which released a statement at the start of proceedings charging that it was a political trial. In a show of support, more than a dozen members of the 37-member committee appeared in court the first week.

By the end of the trial, Mr. Mandela was the only ANC official present, and not a single commentator saw his attendance as a sign that the ANC was standing by Mrs. Mandela.

"No man of any consequence can abandon his wife at a moment of need," the conservative newspaper The Citizen said in an editorial, reflecting the view that Mr. Mandela was acting as any loyal husband would.

Even Mr. Mandela was careful to separate his wife's trial from the ANC's official actions. He told reporters that the trial would have no direct impact on the ANC's power-sharing talks with the government.

There had been wide speculation among political commentators that a conviction could jeopardize the talks because Mr. Mandela might find it difficult to negotiate with a government that put his wife behind bars.

Hermann Gilliomee, a political science professor at the University of Cape Town, said a jail term still could cause a temporary setback in the negotiations. "It would be a very distracting influence" for Mr. Mandela, he said.

Beyond Mr. Mandela's expression of support for his wife and the ANC's cautious response to her conviction, the anti-apartheid movement has been almost unanimously mum on the subject of the woman once labeled the "mother of the nation."

Most people said they preferred to not comment on the case, including leaders of the Mass Democratic Movement, which distanced itself from Mrs. Mandela two years ago when it first came to light that she and her bodyguards were linked to the kidnapping of four young men. At the time, leaders of the movement denounced Mrs. Mandela and called on others to shun her after the body of one of the kidnap victims was discovered.

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