The trial of Winnie Mandela, wife of a prominent leader and herself a symbol of anti-apartheid defiance, produced a week of bizarre events that reflect on the woman, her husband and the most important black political group in South Africa.

Once dubbed Mother of the Nation for boldly resisting government harassment, Winnie Mandela now faces eight counts of kidnapping and assault in a case that involved the alleged beating of four young men in her home in 1988.One teenager died, and the other three victims were set to testify last week against Mandela and her former bodyguards, a group that was said to bully and terrorize the township of Soweto.

But the mysterious disappearance of one of the witnesses - who apparently was abducted from a Methodist Church parsonage last Sunday - brought a strange new twist to the case. Newspapers charged that mafia-style tactics were being used to get Winnie Mandela off the hook and to avoid embarrassment for the African National Congress, the organization with which the Mandela name is so closely linked.

"Al Capone would have approved the abduction of one witness and the terrorizing of two others in the Winnie Mandela trial. Buying, selling and subverting justice is part of mafia style," The Star newspaper wrote.

The two other witnesses refused to testify after Gabriel Mekgwe, 22, disappeared, and the trial was delayed because the state's case virtually had collapsed. But the fallout from last week is likely to haunt Winnie Mandela and tarnish the ANC for some time to come.

"We will note two landmark moments that signal a major shift in the balance within the ANC," said the liberal Weekly Mail, normally a strong supporter of the ANC. "The first was the appointment of Winnie Mandela to head the Department of Social Welfare, despite the fact that she was facing the charges that brought her to court this week.

"The second was the apparent decision of the ANC leadership to identify themselves strongly with her plight, picturing her as no more than a victim of apartheid and casting doubt on the credentials of her accusers. Now, as witnesses are terrified into silence and disappearances become the order of the day, the whole organization is tarnished."

When Winnie Mandela came to court Feb. 4, she was accompanied by a dozen top leaders of the ANC and affiliated organizations. They said that it was a political trial designed to hurt the ANC. The prosecutor said that "ordinary common law crimes" were involved, not political ones.

The charges arise from the December 1988 abduction of four young men from a Methodist Church parsonage, where they lived with a minister who worked with traumatized or troubled boys. Winnie Mandela has said that she was informed that the minister was sexually abusing the young men and that the men were brought to her house to get them away from the minister.

The Soweto community told a different story at the time about the "Mandela United Football Club," the group of up to 30 young men who surrounded Mandela after she returned to Soweto in 1985 from years of official banishment. Soweto residents said that her team of protectors were thugs who unleashed a reign of terror in the township.

After the kidnapping from the Methodist Church and the discovery of the pummeled body of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, the community denounced Mandela and her club.

"We are outraged at Mrs. Mandela's obvious complicity in the recent abductions," said a statement issued by leaders of most major black organizations operating in the country in 1989.

The statement packed tremendous punch at the time, damaging Winnie Mandela's image around the world. But many of the leaders who issued it have played less prominent roles since Nelson Mandela and other veteran leaders have returned from prison or exile.

Winnie Mandela, on the other hand, has been on the rise. She was elected to several local and regional positions within the ANC in addition to being chosen social welfare director, an appointment that caused outrage among social workers.

She is a popular speaker, especially among young radicals who take delight in her outspoken radicalism at a time when the ANC is trying to carve out an image as a non-racial, pro-democracy organization that prefers the negotiation table to the battlefield.