JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The trial of Winnie Mandela teetered on the brink of collapse yesterday after two key witnesses refused to testify, saying they feared for their lives if they spoke against the wife of South Africa's top black leader.
Kenneth Kgase, 31, and Barend Mono, 21, told the court they were frightened by the recent abduction of a third witness, Gabriel Mekgwe, 22. The three have said previously that they were kidnapped from a Methodist mission house in December 1988 and brutally beaten by Mrs. Mandela and her bodyguards.
All had been scheduled to testify in the trial, but Mr. Mekgwe disappeared Sunday night, and Mr. Kgase said that as a result of the Mekgwe kidnapping, "I think my life is at stake. I am very, very scared."
Prosecutor Jan Swanepoel offered the two men state protection, but Mr. Mono responded, "I don't believe there is any person who can protect one for the rest of his life."
Without the testimony of the three victims, Mr. Swanepoel said his case against Mrs. Mandela and her co-defendants would fall apart. He told Judge M. S. Stegmann that it would be a "waste of time" to present medical or forensic evidence or other witnesses because "our case rests on these complainants" -- Mr. Kgase and Mr. Mono.
Mrs. Mandela is married to African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela.
Judge Stegmann said he would rule today on whether the court would compel the witnesses to testify or face up to two years' imprisonment. He said he had to balance the interests of the two men against "the interests of justice."
Under questioning from Mr. Swanepoel, the two witnesses said they would probably be willing to testify if Mr. Mekgwe reappeared and was unharmed. The prosecutor asked Judge Stegmann to postpone the trial to give authorities time to locate Mr. Mekgwe.