NELSON MANDELA'S decision to separate from his wife, Winnie, may have been the hardest he has faced since his release from Robben Island two years ago. The Mandelas' marriage spans 34 years, most of which he spent in prison. Mrs. Mandela became in her own right a powerful symbol of her husband's cause. She endured government harassment and banishment. Her courage inspired the youth of South Africa's black townships.
But that ability to rally youthful militants led her away from the evolving mainstream of the African National Congress (ANC), the political movement Nelson Mandela leads. She became something of a cult figure, demanding obedience from her followers and intimidating those in the ANC who disagreed with her.
The tragic Stompie Seipei murder case, including the conviction of Mrs. Mandela for abduction and assault, highlighted the vicious methods of her retinue.
According to recent news accounts, individuals who had been close to Mrs. Mandela now allege that she was directly involved in the killing of Seipei and the Soweto doctor who examined him. A new trial could result.
Nelson Mandela has unquestionably been weighed down by the controversy surrounding his wife. Separation from someone whose "tenacity" was a support to him during years of incarceration was a heavy personal burden. But Mrs. Mandela's reputation for ruthlessness had also become a political burden. Many in the ANC wanted her out of the picture. Some suspected that her husband might cut a deal with the government to trade leniency on her criminal charges for concessions from the ANC.
That particular cloud over current negotiations on a new political order for South Africa is dispelled by Mr. Mandela's announcement this week. Just as important, his stature is enhanced. He has made a tremendous individual sacrifice to uphold the principles of peaceful change. Prominent among those principles is rule by law instead of personal power.
Does Winnie Mandela have a political future? She has resigned from her main office with the ANC, but she still has loyal followers. Much depends on the pending legal actions against her. But the militant bitterness she has come to personify must be relegated to the fringe of South African politics if the healing so needed in that country is to progress.
It's that bitterness from which Mr. Mandela, and the organization he heads, had to separate.