THE bizarre trial of Winnie Mandela emerged this week as a pivotal sideshow in South African politics. It has helped draw the lines between an emerging coalition of democrats of all races and those who still call for the politics of revolution and coercion.
To the former group, Mrs. Mandela represents the values they would like eliminated in the ``new'' South Africa.
The abduction of a key state witness, the intimidation of the remaining witnesses, and the African National Congress's (ANC) confusion about whether the law should take its course have landed it in deep trouble.
Never since the group's legalization a year ago have its sympathizers given it such a hammering. Liberal publications, such as the anti-apartheid Weekly Mail and the mainstream Star newspaper, lambasted the ANC for bungling the case. They have criticized the Congress for failing to keep a distance between it and the Mafia-style antics which caused the anti-apartheid movement to cast Mrs. Mandela out as a pariah only two years ago.
``It is causing deep concern within the organization,'' an ANC executive member says, despite a display of unity behind the Mandelas.
It is not just Mrs Mandela's abberrant behavior that is on trial.
It is the ANC - which has already become an integral part of the national decision-making process - that is in the dock.
It is already widely accepted that the ANC will be a major component - if not the dominant one - in the next government. So events surrounding the trial have raised questions about the shape of justice and democracy in the new South Africa.
Mrs. Mandela role as the wife of ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela is less troubling than her prominence within radical ANC circles, including the youth and the military wings, and she articulates their sentiments. She is a symbol of militancy in a climate of compromise and concession. She represents those who believe negotiating is merely a strategy, which needs to be backed up by ``mass action'' and even insurrection, to ensure a transfer of power rather than a power-sharing compromise.
On the opposite side stands the moderate wing of the ANC which believes negotiations are a process of give-and-take, a means to a nonracial, democratic state. This group accepts that the politics of intimidation must go.
The ANC-government accord last week, which declared a moratorium on creating underground groups and halted the further infiltration of ANC guerrillas into South Africa and their training within the country, underlined an irreversible process.
The government makes few decisions today without consulting ANC leaders. ``The political deal has already been struck,'' says a confident Johannesburg business executive.
Militant ANC activists see things differently. They believe they hold at least one trump card: the ANC's national conference in June, where they will have an opportunity to replace old-guard moderates on the national executive with more militant figures.
This is where Winnie Mandela could play a crucial role.
Even some of her enemies within the ANC admit she could emerge ultimately as the key to ANC unity given her personal popularity and claim to the Mandela name. She already holds three elected positions within the ANC and is head of its social welfare department. She is well-placed to be elected to the ANC executive and will be a natural choice for the negotiating team that helps shape a new South African constitution.
``We know that she will represent our interests and resist unpopular compromises,'' says an ANC activist.