THE controversy surrounding Winnie Mandela has created new tensions within the African National Congress that could weaken its position in negotiating a new constitution for South Africa. Mrs. Mandela, once accorded the title of ``mother of the nation'' (Umama Wethu) by the black community, now faces charges of kidnapping and assault. The case will go to trial on Feb. 4.
When her alleged role in the abduction and beating of four black youths (one of them died) was disclosed 18 months ago, leaders of the anti-apartheid movement called on the black community to distance itself from her.
But in recent months the wife of ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela appears to have made a dramatic - if controversial - political comeback. Her election last week to the ANC executive in the powerful Johannesburg region indicates that she still enjoys substantial support among sections of the ANC.
In late August, Mrs. Mandela was appointed head of the ANC's newly created Department of Social Welfare. It will be responsible for overseeing the return and integration of about 30,000 exiles under a government amnesty. She is also chairwoman of a special ANC branch in the Soweto neighborhood of Orlando West.
But Mrs. Mandela's political reinstatement has troubled the ANC, challenged as it is by the transition from an exiled liberation movement to a political party.
Internal criticism of what has become known as the ``Winnie factor'' has tended to be muted out of respect for her husband, the veteran ANC leader. Some insiders say that the resentment could eventually detract from the stature and authority of her husband.
``Despite the outcry within the ANC over the appointment of Winnie Mandela as head of the Department of Social Welfare,'' wrote the editor of the liberal Weekly Mail, ``little has been done to stem what threatens to be a major, long-term source of conflict and controversy.''
The left-wing monthly Work in Progress wrote: ``Newly formed ANC branches that write to head office rejecting the choice of Winnie Mandela as head of the social welfare department must be answered.''
But Mrs. Mandela still inspires loyalty from young black radicals and has residual sympathy from others. ``I have a lot of sympathy for Winnie,'' says veteran human rights campaigner Helen Suzman, who has known her for three decades. ``I don't condone what she may have done.... But she is a feisty woman and I like that. She has been through an enormous amount of harassment and persecution, too.''
Mrs. Mandela's fall from grace was linked to her befriending a group of young bodyguards named the Mandela United Football Club, who acquired a reputation in Soweto as a gang of ruthless thugs.
The youths have been held responsible for at least 16 murders, and three of the group's members are on death row for murder convictions. The Independent newspaper of London recently reported that Mrs. Mandela had personally ordered the killing of two youths on separate occasions in 1989.
A series of kidnappings, beatings, and murders culminated in December 1988 with the abduction of four youths from a Methodist mission in Soweto. The youngest, Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, aged 14, was beaten by the bodyguards in Mrs. Mandela's home and was later found dead.
Jerry Richardson, leader of the so-called Football Club, was convicted of murdering Stompie and sentenced to death on Aug. 7. The trial judge found that Mrs. Mandela had been present during the beatings and had participated in some of them.
On Sept. 17, Transvaal Province Attorney General Klaus von Lieres und Wilkau announced that Mrs. Mandela was to be charged on four counts of kidnapping and four of assault. Mrs. Mandela welcomed the decision: ``At last I will be able to stand a proper trial ... and clear my name.''
In the past two months, Mrs. Mandela has acquired three positions in the ANC that give her a formidable power base independent of her husband's. In the past she has won admiration for spirited resistance to decades of harassment and persecution.
But she is reviled by many South Africans - both black and white - for the reign of terror of the ``Football Club.'' In a recent interview with Vanity Fair magazine, Mrs. Mandela tried to resolve a paradox many find in her: how such an elegant woman could have such a harsh side. ``I am literally their [the Afrikaners'] product,'' she said. ``I would never have known what it is that would drive a human being into physical conflict because of ideological differences. The Afrikaners taught me that, showed me how they hated the black man in South Africa.''
Nelson Mandela has been unswervingly loyal to his wife throughout the crisis, which began while he was still in jail. After his release, when the news media pressed him to judge his wife's actions, Mr. Mandela criticized the authorities for not giving her the opportunity of a fair trial.
``My wife's whole reputation is being smashed without her having the opportunity to reply,'' he said. When she appeared in court Sept. 24, Mandela was at her side.
Following the decision to prosecute, the ANC issued a statement that offered the Mandelas the ANC's ``unequivocal support'' but did not criticize the government.
``The matter is now in the hands of the courts and it would be improper for the ANC to make any comment on the pending judicial process,'' the ANC said. But Randall Robinson, director of the Washington-based anti-apartheid lobby TransAfrica, says, ``It is difficult to believe that a fair trial for Winnie Mandela is possible in South Africa.''