South Africa's Drama

South Africa's confrontation with its anguished past took yet another dramatic turn with Winnie Madikileza-Mandela's appearance before the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The charges faced by Mrs. Madikileza-Mandela (until their divorce last year, wife of President Nelson Mandela) involve the deaths of teen-aged boys accused of being police informers. The incidents occurred in the turbulent late 1980s. At the time, Madikileza-Mandela employed a group of "bodyguards" known as the Mandela United Football Club.

These young men terrorized much of the black township near Johannesburg where Madikileza-Mandela lived. Their activities too often turned murderous.

Despite this checkered history, the woman known to many black South Africans as "mother of the nation" retains a strong following. She had been seen as a likely candidate for deputy president of the African National Congress (ANC), the dominant force in the country's politics. That path for her ambitions, however, has been blocked.

After the widely publicized, largely negative testimony concerning Madikileza-Mandela before the truth commission, the ANC - and its Women's League, that was to nominate her - made it clear she would get no formal backing for the post. This is a relief to the party, to President Mandela, and to the country.

The truth and reconciliation panel's work has unearthed some of the worst episodes of the apartheid era - from governmental implication in black-on-black violence, to the brutal murder of black consciousness leader Steve Biko while in custody in 1977, to the appalling methods of torture routinely employed by white policemen. Human rights failings within the ANC and other black groups have also been probed. The country's business community has been called on to admit its complicity in apartheid's injustices.

Winnie Madikileza-Mandela's case - a particularly emotional and in some ways ambivalent one - was bound to come up. The commission elicited a grudging apology from her. That, perhaps, is yet another small step in the country's effort to face its recent history, forgive, and get on with the crucial work of building a better future.

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