JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Winnie Mandela, an international anti-apartheid heroine but an embarrassment to some at home in the black liberation movement, went on trial in a packed courtroom here Monday on four charges of kidnaping and assault.
Mrs. Mandela, appearing relaxed, kissed her husband, Nelson Mandela, before ascending a short staircase into the defendant's dock at the beginning of the trial, which stems from the death of a 14-year-old black youth allegedly beaten at her home two years ago.
Nelson Mandela, the 72-year-old deputy president of the African National Congress, took a seat in the third row of the public gallery, accompanied by dozens of family and friends, including the couple's 30-year-old daughter, Zindzi, and ANC Secretary General Alfred Nzo, Communist Party chief Joe Slovo and ANC military commander Chris Hani.
The first day of the trial was taken up with an array of motions by lawyers acting for Mrs. Mandela and her seven co-defendants. Four of the defendants have skipped bail and warrants were issued for their arrest.
George Bizos, the Mandela family's longtime attorney, asked the court to dismiss the kidnaping charges against Mrs. Mandela, arguing that the state's charge sheet lacked sufficient details of his client's role in the alleged abductions.
"Precisely what act or acts did Mrs. Mandela perform to deprive the complainants of their liberty, precisely when and precisely where were such acts performed by her?" he asked. "She is clearly entitled to succinct information on each question."
Justice M.S. Stegmann took the motion under advisement, and neither Mrs. Mandela nor the other three defendants present were asked to enter pleas. The trial was adjourned until today.
On leaving the courthouse, the Mandelas were mobbed by reporters and singing supporters. A smiling Mrs. Mandela, wearing a navy-and-yellow-plaid suit, raised her fist to greet the throng, which cheered her.
The highly charged and controversial proceedings are being closely watched by South Africans, many of whom fear that the trial could sour the good relationship between Mandela and President Frederik W. de Klerk on the eve of negotiations for a new constitution.
And the charges also have threatened to split the ANC. While Mrs. Mandela retains wide support among the most militant ANC supporters, many moderate members have in the past two years been dismayed by the actions of her and her team of young bodyguards, who have been connected in court records to more than a dozen killings in Soweto.
Some anti-apartheid leaders have privately expressed concern that Mrs. Mandela's selection in recent months to three important ANC posts, including head of its social welfare department, has been engineered by ANC officials hoping to curry favor with Mrs. Mandela's husband.
Nelson Mandela had challenged the state to file charges against his wife to "give her the opportunity to prove she is innocent."
But ANC leaders have adopted a more militant stance on the case, arguing in a news release two weeks ago that Winnie Mandela's trial was "part of a pattern of harassment and persecution" and a breach of the spirit of agreements between the ANC and the government.
Asked by reporters on Monday to predict the outcome, Mrs. Mandela responded: "We in this family, unlike other people, will speak in court." In previous interviews with The Times, she has said the charges were an attempt by the white-led government to discredit her husband.
Mrs. Mandela, 54, and seven others are charged with abducting four black men from a Methodist church house in Soweto a few days after Christmas in 1988. The state alleges that the men were taken to Mrs. Mandela's home, where they were beaten for several days. The body of one, 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, was found in a field on Jan. 7, 1989.
The state's key witnesses include the three survivors, each of whom testified last year in the trial of Jerry Richardson, 41, a former leader of Mrs. Mandela's retinue of young bodyguards, known as the Mandela United Football Club.
Richardson was convicted and sentenced to death in the case, and although Mrs. Mandela did not testify, the judge made a special finding that she had been present during some of the beatings.
The three men testified in that case that they, along with Seipei, were taken to Mrs. Mandela's house by Richardson and three other men. Mrs. Mandela, they said, accused Seipei of being a police spy and said the others had been sexually molested by the pastor who runs the church home.
While she questioned them, they testified, she hit each of them with her hands and a rubber whip known as a sjambok. At one point, she told Seipei: "You are not fit to be alive," the survivors testified. Mrs. Mandela later left the room and did not participate in the more brutal beatings, which left Seipei unconscious, according to the testimony.
Mrs. Mandela's soccer club, which was disbanded shortly before Nelson Mandela was freed from prison last year, has been connected to 16 deaths in Soweto since 1986, according to the British Broadcasting Corp. program, File on Four.
Four murder trials have resulted from those cases and three former Mandela United members have been sentenced to death.
The club was widely reviled in Soweto, and in 1988 residents appointed a committee of community leaders, including church leaders and respected figures in the anti-apartheid movement, to ask Mrs. Mandela to disband the club. But, at the time, she refused.