THE trial of Winnie Mandela on assault and kidnapping charges has been thrown into doubt by the disappearance of four of her codefendants. Police said Thursday that the four had jumped bail. They said that since last month the youths have failed to comply with conditions of their bail to report weekly to a police station.
The police did not say why their disappearance was not announced earlier. The African National Congress (ANC) had no comment on the whereabouts of the youths.
A warrant has been issued for the arrest of the four, and prosecution lawyers say a decision on the future of the trial would be made in court today.
The trial follows the murder in December 1988 of 14-year-old activist Stompie Moeketsi Seipei by Jerry Richardson, one of Mrs. Mandela's personal bodyguards.
When Mr. Richardson was sentenced to death last year, the trial judge ruled that Mrs. Mandela had participated in the kidnap and beatings of four black youths in January 1989.
Western diplomats and family friends say that, if Mrs. Mandela is convicted, even a six-month jail sentence could undermine the crucial role of her husband, ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela, in keeping negotiations with the ruling National Party under way.
A senior Western diplomat predicted that, if necessary, the negotiation process could remain on track without President Frederik de Klerk - because he has like-minded potential successors - but would be derailed if anything befell Mr. Mandela.
``Mandela bears an enormous load of guilt because of the cruel treatment meted out to Winnie during his imprisonment,'' says a family friend. ``He has fallen in love with Winnie all over again and utterly believes that she is innocent.''
When Mrs. Mandela was first implicated in the case, anti-apartheid groups condemned her behavior and ostracized her. Since then, she has been ``rehabilitated'' gradually and today holds three important positions in the ANC.
When the decision to prosecute Mrs. Mandela was announced in September, the ANC offered moral support to the Mandelas but left the matter to the court.
The ANC changed tack last week and called for the scrapping of the trial, branding it as ``part of a pattern of harassment and persecution'' that breached agreements reached between the government and the ANC.
``We have no doubt elements opposed to the peace process ... are manipulating the issues surrounding this trial for blatant political purposes,'' said ANC Secretary-General Alfred Nzo.
Klaus von Lieres und Wilkau, the Transvaal Province attorney general, has rejected suggestions the trial was subject to any form of manipulation. Mrs. Mandela is to be defended by renowned human rights lawyer George Bizos.