THE conviction of anti-apartheid leader Winnie Mandela on charges of conspiracy to kidnap and being an accessory to assault marks a watershed in her political career and could harm the image of the anti-apartheid cause. Mrs. Mandela was sentenced Tuesday to six years imprisonment, following her conviction a day earlier.
The verdict vindicates the step taken by anti-apartheid leaders more than two years ago in distancing themselves from Mrs. Mandela, following reports implicating her in the abduction and assault of three black men and a youth in December 1988 and January 1989.
The African National Congress (ANC) has declined to comment on the judgment so far. An ANC official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was unlikely that there would be any moves against Mrs. Mandela within the organization until the outcome of an inevitable appeal, which could take several months.
Randall Robinson, head of the Washington-based anti-apartheid group Trans-Africa, said in a United States television interview that the verdict would do ``incalculable damage'' to the anti-apartheid movement worldwide.
The bizarre events surrounding the trial - including the abduction of a state witness, four co-defendants jumping bail, and an assassination attempt on a witness - have already tarnished the Mandela name and the cause of the ANC.
``I can't think of any other recent episode which has done the ANC so much harm in the eyes of the international community,'' a Western diplomat says.
There is also concern in political and diplomatic circles that the outcome of the trial could have an adverse effect on ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela, who has stood loyally by his wife throughout the ordeal.
Friends of Mr. Mandela say he feels personally responsible for the years of harassment, banishment, and intimidation that his wife endured during his 27 years in jail.
``The three-month trial has clearly placed enormous emotional strain on him,'' said a friend of the family.
Mrs. Mandela emerged from the Johannesburg Supreme Court, after the judgment, with a broad smile and giving black-power salutes to a small crowd gathered outside the court.
At her side, clasping her hand, was a grim Nelson Mandela. He sat stern-faced throughout the judge's verdict and was visibly emotional when he reached the finding of guilty.
Mr. Mandela, a lawyer by profession, is a strong advocate of the rule of law, but he is critical of the way in which the judicial process in South Africa is loaded against blacks.
Differences of opinion within the ANC over Mrs. Mandela were evident in the long run-up to the trial. During this period, the ANC issued conflicting statements.
The first statement reflected the view that the law should be allowed to take its course while offering the Mandela family the ANC's full support. But a later statement, issued just before the trial began, declared that it was a political trial and should be scrapped.
These latent tensions within the ANC were exacerbated last month when senior ANC official Chris Hani told an audience in the US that the ANC would resort to mass protest if Mrs. Mandela was jailed and would free her once the ANC came to power.
His comments, which were publicly criticized by South African Communist Party members, also caused disquiet among many of his ANC colleagues.
In his six-hour judgment, Judge M.S. Stegmann found that Mrs. Mandela had authorized the abduction of four black men - ranging between 14 and 21 years - from a nearby Methodist manse in order to smear the presiding minister, the Rev. Paul Verryn.
Mrs. Mandela was acquitted of charges that she assaulted the four but was found to be ``an accessory after the fact'' of assault by failing to order her bodyguards to release the youths despite being aware that they had been seriously assaulted.
Judge Stegman found that Mrs. Mandela had not been a credible witness.
``She showed herself on a number of occasions to be a calm, composed, deliberate, and unblushing liar,'' he said.
The judge also found it was ``reasonably, possibly true'' that Mrs. Mandela was not present when the assaults and kidnapping took place.
Jerry Richardson, the head of the Mandela bodyguard, was sentenced to death in a separate trial last year after being convicted of murdering one of the four victims, 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi Seipei. Xoliswa Falati, a co-defendant, was convicted of kidnap and assault, and a second co-defendant, John Morgan, was found guilty of kidnap but not assault.
Mrs. Mandela, who holds three elected positions and one senior appointed post in the ANC, is regarded by many ANC militants as a potential leader in her own right. The biggest blow to her career came two weeks ago - after nearly three months of testimony at her trial - when she was overwelmingly defeated in a ballot for the post of president of the ANC's Women's League.