THE defeat of Winnie Mandela in an election for a top post in the African National Congress has been widely welcomed in all sections of South African society. ``I think think this is a victory for democracy,'' said a delegate to the first national conference of the ANC's Women's League held in South Africa since the organization was outlawed in 1960.
Mrs. Mandela, who is on trial on kidnapping and assault charges, was defeated by 633 votes to 196 in a secret ballot for the post of national president of the ANC Women's League.
But the enigmatic wife of ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela dismissed suggestions that adverse publicity in her trial had affected the outcome of the ballot. ``Nothing could be further from the truth,'' she told the Monitor. ``The case does not have anything to do with this.''
Some delegates felt that she should not be a candidate until her trial had ended.
The vote drew wide interest because it was the first test of Mrs. Mandela's popularity following a nearly three month trial in which she is accused of abducting and assaulting four black youths. She denies the charges.
It was the first democratic election for a national ANC body since the organization was legalized 15 months ago.
``It was one of the first occasions when we began to grapple with the problem of establishing free elections in a new South Africa,'' says Frene Ginwala, a League executive member. ``What was remarkable was the appreciation of the need to have a secret ballot to ensure that the delegates were able to exercise a democratic choice.''
Mrs. Mandela played down the result, saying she had only run because of pressure from the League's regions.
``I am not looking for any positions whatsoever,'' she said. ``I do think that any mother should take on more responsibility than I already have ... that would be ridiculous.''
The post of League president would have given Mrs. Mandela a seat on the ANC's 37-member national executive committee, which is due to grow to 105 members, according to a proposal before its national conference in July.
The election was won by Gertrude Shope, an exile who returned last year, after managing the League's affairs for 30 years. Albertina Sisulu, wife of veteran ANC leader Walter Sisulu, was elected deputy president.
Mrs. Sisulu, a highly respected figure in anti-apartheid circles, who for years served as co-president of the United Democratic Front, had also been under pressure to run against Mrs. Mandela for the League post. According to delegates, she refused, but in a closed session she urged supporters to vote for Mrs. Shope.
Bitterness among Mrs. Mandela's supporters ran so high that her top lieutenants refused nomination to the League's executive committee, delegates say.
At the close of the conference, Mr. Mandela tried to heal the wounds in a short speech in which he warmly congratulated Mrs. Shope on her success. ``Those who lost should not be disappointed. There should be no need for bitterness and regret,'' he said. ``I am sure that those who lost the contest will accept the decision and give the new president their full support.''
Many ANC members are concerned about Mrs. Mandela's rapid rise through ANC ranks despite doubts about her conduct and the abduction of a state witness before her trial began.
Mrs. Mandela still holds several other ANC posts, including head of the Department of Social Welfare, a post on the Johannesburg executive, and head of the ANC's Orlando East branch.
Under a proposal before the ANC's June conference all 15 regional leaders of the League would gain places on the ANC executive, and 30 percent of executive posts would go to women.
Despite growing disquiet within the ANC about Mrs. Mandela, its members have been reluctant to criticize her publicly because of the power she wields within the organization. But the cumulative effect of negative testimony in her trial appears to have caused her popularity to wane. At a meeting of the South African Communist Party (SACP) Thursday she was discussed publicly for the first time.
Devan Pillay, editor of the respected left-wing journal Work-in-Progress, challenged senior ANC/SACP leader Chris Hani for saying in the United States last week that, if Mrs. Mandela was convicted, the ANC would resort to mass protest.
Mr. Hani, who is chief of staff of the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, was also reported as saying that when the ANC took power it would free Mrs. Mandela if she was jailed.
Mr. Pillay asked whether it was wise to tie the future of the SACP to Mrs. Mandela. He said a public debate about Mrs. Mandela was essential if a culture of tolerance was to be achieved. ``That is precisely what is at issue with the whole Winnie Mandela matter.''
Jeremy Cronin, a member of the SACP's internal leadership, says there were many complicating factors in the trial but the principle of no one being above the law should be kept in mind at all times.