JOHANNESBURG — THE state's case in the kidnap and assault trial of Winnie Mandela, one of the most bizarre episodes in the country's legal history, is close to collapse because key state witnesses are too afraid to testify. The faltering trial is a personal victory for Mrs. Mandela, whose political star has been rising rapidly in the African National Congress (ANC) despite deep reservations about her in sectors of the organization.
The prosecution received a major setback with the Sunday night abduction of key witness Pelo Mekgwe from the Methodist manse in Soweto township where he and three other youths were abducted two years ago by Mrs. Mandela's personal bodyguard. The three witnesses have been under in the protection of the Methodist Church.
One youth, 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, was murdered in January 1989. The other three, who were also assaulted, are the state witnesses in Mrs. Mandela's trial.
It was after Mr. Mekgwe's abduction that the other two state witnesses - Thabo Mono and Kenneth Kgase - said they would not testify.
Mr. Kgase appeared in court yesterday looking nervous. He was the first witness called, and he said he feared he could suffer a similar fate to that of Mekgwe if he testified.
Mr. Mono also said he was too scared to testify, but said he may change his mind depending what happened to Mekgwe.
Trial judge M.S. Stegmann, who has expressed increasing irritation about the constant delays, will decide today whether the reasons given by Mono and Kgase amount to a ``just excuse.''
If he rules that the witnesses do not have just grounds for refusing to testify, they could face up to two years in jail. Judge Stegmann suggested that the state should continue to hear medical and forensic testimony to avoid any further delays.
Prosecutor Jan Swanepoel proposed that the trial be postponed until May or June to allow time for Mekgwe to reappear.
On Monday, Mrs. Mandela and the other three defendants pleaded ``not guilty'' to all charges. A statement by Mrs. Mandela handed to the court Monday stated that she was not in Soweto at the time of the abduction and beatings.
At the trial last May of her bodyguard, Jerry Richardson, who was convicted of murdering Stompie Seipei and sentenced to death, the judge ruled Mrs. Mandela had participated in the beatings.
The Star newspaper of Johannesburg reported Wednesday that Mekgwe was seen leaving the Methodist manse Sunday night in the company of three ANC members, one of whom it described as ``a senior member of the organization.''
The obvious tensions the trial has caused within the ANC were again evident in a circumspect denial of the Star report by the ANC's Department of Information and Publicity.
``The ANC denies and rejects any imputation that it is organizationally implicated in the disappearance of Mr. Mekgwe. ... The ANC will, however, investigate the allegations.''