THE decision last week by leaders of South Africa's anti-apartheid movement to censure and ostracize Winnie Mandela was no doubt a painful step. The need to distance the movement from Mrs. Mandela has also been embarrassing to responsible black activists, as South African authorities and news media have played up her alleged descent into violence. In the long run, however, the anti-apartheid forces will be strengthened by their resolve to uphold high standards of resistance. On the surface, the public condemnation of Mandela was a step backward for blacks at the very time they appeared to be winning an important victory. After meeting with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other church leaders last week, South African authorities signaled their intention to release most of the 300 political detainees who mounted a three-week hunger strike.
Rather than being contradictory, though, the parallel developments are consistent in their showing of black unity and commitment to responsible protest against apartheid.
Mandela has long been esteemed by blacks both for her own courage in the face of persecution and also for her status as the wife of black hero Nelson Mandela. But there is evidence that she has become a renegade.
For several years, many black activists have been privately concerned over Mrs. Mandela's free-lancing and her sympathy for terrorism against suspected informers in the black townships.
Recently a ``soccer club'' of young toughs organized by Mrs. Mandela to be her bodyguards was implicated in the abduction and beating of other black youths in Soweto. One such boy was found murdered. This led to the public disowning of Winnie Mandela by major anti-apartheid organizations.
There is an air of tragedy in this affair. But black leaders are to be commended for acting decisively to keep it from smearing their fight against official racism. It was not, in the end, a dark hour for racial justice in South Africa.