By Norm Dixon
The May 14 sentencing of Winnie Mandela to six years' jail by a juryless court, presided over by a single white judge, is sure to add fuel to the black majority's growing anger and resentment at the South African government. Her conviction will be seen as consistent with the government's failure to honour its pledges to release all political prisoners and allow the return of exiles, and its reluctance to act against its Inkatha allies' reign of terror in the townships.
After a 15-week trial, the judge, Michael Stegman, handed down a verdict that Mandela was guilty on four charges of kidnap and four charges of being an accessory after the fact to assault. She was found not guilty on the more serious charge of assault.
The trial arose out of accusations that, in 1988, four young anti-apartheid activists were abducted from the residence of a white Methodist minister and later assaulted at the home of Winnie Mandela. These events were allegedly authorised by Mandela. One of the youngsters was later found dead; Mandela's bodyguard, Jerry Richardson, was convicted of the murder in May 1990.
Mandela and two co-defendants argued that the four youths went to Mandela's Soweto home voluntarily because they had been sexually abused by the minister. Mandela told the court she was more than 375 kilometres away in Brandfort when the assaults took place, and had nothing to do with them. She produced three witnesses who substantiated her account.
The judge's verdict shocked many legal observers in South Africa, both ANC-aligned and independent human rights lawyers. Most believed the confirmation of Mandela's presence in Brandfort meant that she could not be found guilty. The judge chose to go along with the prosecution's dubious contention that a "common purpose" welded the actions of Mandela and her co-accused together.
Stegman accepted that Mandela's alibi was "reasonably, possibly true" but ignored the evidence of co-defendant Xoliswa Falati that she acted without the consent and prior knowledge of Winnie Mandela.
Stegman also found that the two key state witnesses, both of whom were allegedly kidnapped, had fabricated evidence. According to their testimony, Mandela participated in their assaults even though she was hundreds of kilometres away. Despite this remarkable finding, Stegman still was able to rule that "Whatever else they may have embroidered, the fact that they were taken against their will was clearly the truth".
The judge also disregarded evidence from another co-accused, Mandela's driver John Morgan, that police offered him money, a gun, a house and freedom from prosecution if he implicated her in the assault on the youths. He said that police beat him and forced him to sign a statement saying that Mandela had hit Stompie Seipei, the murdered youth, across the face. In finding Mandela guilty, Stegman said that she ordered the abductions as part of a conspiracy to discredit the white minister. Despite being in Brandfort at the time of the beatings, he ruled, Mandela had associated with the perpetrators and had not reported them. This made her an accessory after the fact.
Mandela's lawyer, George Bizos, lodged an immediate appeal, and she was released on bail. He told the press he was confident the appeal would be successful. The appeal process could take up to three years.
Bizos restated the defence belief that Mandela had already been tried by the hostile white media in South Africa and that the world media had simply repeated these views. He said that totally untrue allegations that she had taken part in the beatings, had ordered the youth's murder and that her alibi was fabricated were widely reported as fact.
Winnie Mandela, following her conviction, immediately affirmed her innocence to hundreds of supporters gathered outside the court: "I want to thank all of you for not having been influenced by the misleading reports we have had to live with for two and half years. Even their own court found me not having assaulted any child."
Mandela's husband, Nelson, also supported her innocence: "I have never believed that she is guilty of assaulting anyone. And the judgment of the court has confirmed that position. My faith in her has been fully vindicated. The witnesses who accused her of assault and other terrible crimes have been thoroughly discredited. The judge found her guilty of not reporting assaults committed by others. I believe that she did not know about such assaults."
Chris Hani, a member of the ANC National Executive Committee and chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe, pledged that if Winnie is jailed mass protests will be held. A future ANC government would release her immediately, he promised.
Many of South Africa's black majority believe that the trial and verdict are just another episode in the political harassment and victimisation of the Mandela family by the apartheid regime. It is an attempt to smear the name Mandela and the ANC leadership internationally so that President de Klerk will be accepted more readily. It is also seen as a crude attempt to convince South African whites that blacks are too "uncivilised" to govern.
De Klerk and the Nationals hope the conviction will weaken the ANC and perhaps even help provoke a split in its leadership prior to the start of negotiations over a new constitution, just as, with far more serious effects, it has refused to put a stop to the murderous attacks by police-supported Inkatha mobs on township residents.