S. African drama


THE PHOTOGRAPHER caught Winnie Mandela as she left the court after her conviction for kidnapping. She was smiling exuberantly, as if she had just won a great victory. Behind her was Nelson Mandela, eyes downcast, looking stricken and exhausted.

That remarkable, terrible picture spoke volumes about the drama of South Africa today, the human factors and the politics. Most of all, it reminded us of the unimaginable burdens borne by one 72-year-old man.

In the 15 months since he walked free from prison, Nelson Mandela has played the chief role in talks with President F.W. de Klerk and the white government. He has presided over an African National Congress divided and not yet organized for politics. He has spent his moral capital trying, unsuccessfully, to end the murderous conflict between black political factions.

Now Mandela is confronted with his wife's conviction for a brutal criminal offense. He has loyally defended her innocence. He has seemed to hear no voice to the contrary. But events have caught up.

There are many reasons to sympathize with Winnie Mandela. Over decades, with her husband in prison, she was tormented by the government: detained, banished to a remote town. The government, moreover, committed many cruelties worse than kidnapping in the cause of white supremacy.

But none of that can excuse a leader who becomes arrogant, indifferent to decencies, suffused in her own cult of personality. For outsiders to make such a judgment would be unfair. But some of Mrs. Mandela's respected peers have made it.

On Feb. 16, 1989, the Mass Democratic Movement -- as the leading internal anti-apartheid force then called itself -- condemned Mrs. Mandela. It said she had, "abused the trust and confidence which she has enjoyed over the years." It deplored the "football club" of thugs she had around her, saying: "We are outraged by the reign of terror that the team has been associated with."

The difficulty posed for Nelson Mandela by her conviction is not just personal. Mrs. Mandela is identified with the more militant elements in the ANC. In 1986 she spoke in favor of "necklace" murders, which the ANC leadership had been careful not to endorse. She is popular in the ultra-radical ANC Youth League.

The radicals in the ANC may well use the trial and conviction of Mrs. Mandela to arouse members against Nelson Mandela's policy of peace and negotiation.

There are rumors that at a national conference next month the radicals will try to move such older leaders as Mandela and Walter Sisulu aside to a nominal senior role.

It is a gloomy picture: an elderly man bearing the hopes of peace in South Africa beset by problems, personal trauma on top of political. But it would be wrong to conclude that the South African drama is necessarily heading toward a tragic end.

One reason for a degree of optimism is the way South Africans on all sides, most of them, have dealt with Mrs. Mandela's trial: calmly and fairly.

During the years of white supremacy the law has been viciously misused. But from all one can tell, this trial was handled professionally by the judge, Justice Michael Stegmann.

The reaction to the verdict and six-year prison sentence was also mild. Surprisingly few supporters gathered outside the court to cheer Mrs. Mandela. The ANC issued a detached statement saying that the last word had not been spoken in the case. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said "the movement is larger than any individual."

A more fundamental reason for hope is that F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela -- and those for whom they speak -- have a common interest in creating a new, non-racial South Africa. They need each other. Without their agreement, there can be no solution, no outcome that leaves a viable country.

The next step is formal negotiations. They can come only when the government takes further steps to meet the reasonable ANC demand for action against violence -- in particular, a ban on the carrying of so-called "cultural" weapons such as spears. How can the government look away when 1,000 Zulus carrying spears and machetes slaughter township residents?

The time factor is crucial now. Negotiations must start soon if the moderate center of the public, black and white, is to retain hope for a peaceful solution. World and time press on Nelson Mandela.

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