JOHANNESBURG, FEB. 3 -- South Africa's best-known and most controversial black woman, Winnie Mandela, goes on trial here Monday on eight counts of kidnapping and assaulting four Soweto township youths, one of whom was subsequently murdered.

The trial is shaping up as a test not only for Winnie Mandela but also her illustrious husband, Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress he heads, the black community and South Africa's white system of justice.

The issues involved go much further than just kidnapping and assault. They include the spectacle of prosecuting one of the nation's most prominent black activists at a time when the government is trying to involve black leaders in efforts to forge a new democracy and end the country's apartheid system of racial separation.

The trial is testing the resolve of both sides to live up to a new standard of racial and social equality in which no person, regardless of prominence or political stature, is afforded special treatment under the law.

The malaise over Winnie Mandela's past behavior has only deepened within the black community as it has watched her, with Nelson Mandela's help, win various top ANC national and regional posts in the last two years. She is now head of the ANC's social welfare department, a member of its regional executive committee and head of its Johannesburg-area women's organization.

If she is found guilty, the ANC will face a decision on whether to strip her of these leadership positions, a potentially embarrassing situation for Nelson Mandela and the National Executive Committee.

Winnie Mandela is on trial with seven other associates of her now-defunct Mandela United Football Club, whose general misbehavior became a national scandal in the late 1980s. But the disappearance in December of four of the codefendants while out on bail has raised last-minute doubts about whether the state will go ahead with the trial.

The Mandelas have hired a high-powered team of lawyers led by George Bizos, who defended Nelson Mandela at his 1963-64 Rivonia treason trial, in which he was sentenced to life in prison but freed a year ago. Of even more political interest, however, is the Mandelas' choice of Dikgang Moseneke, deputy leader of the rival Pan Africanist Congress, to help in the defense.

Winnie Mandela said last September, when she was indicted, that she welcomed the chance finally to "stand a proper trial and clear my name properly."

Her husband has shown more ambivalence, sometimes concurring with his wife's statement but at other times decrying her trial as unwarranted.

The ANC seems equally torn in its feelings about the trial. Secretary General Alfred Nzo issued a statement Jan. 25 condemning the trial as "part of a pattern of harassment and persecution to which Comrade Winnie has been subjected for the last 30 years."

But there has been a noticeable lack of enthusiasm to defend his statement -- even by the ANC's own press department.

Many activists who remember the summary justice dispensed by the Mandela United Football Club on residents of the black township of Soweto in the late 1980s say they are happy to see Winnie Mandela finally go on trial.

In February 1989, the umbrella anti-apartheid United Democratic Front issued a statement saying she had "abused the trust and confidence" of the black liberation movement. It called for her isolation from all its activities and expressed outrage at what it called "the reign of terror" her club for "football," or soccer, as it is known in America, had engaged in.

The final straw for the "mass democratic movement" was the violent death of a 14-year-old activist, Moketsi Seipei, in January 1989. His killing led to a death sentence last year for the Mandela club's coach, Jerry Vusi Musi Richardson, and to the charges Winnie Mandela now faces at her trial.

Just why Winnie Mandela decided to risk tarnishing her reputation by indulging in the blackboard jungle politics of Soweto's youth remains a mystery.

One plausible account of how the Mandela soccer club was founded has come from Lerothodi Ikaneng, a former member who almost died a victim of the club's street justice. In a long interview published in the Independent newspaper of London Sept. 21, Ikaneng told how Winnie Mandela in late 1986 had sought to unite two rival factions of the pro-ANC Soweto Youth Congress.

Ikaneng said she brought about 20 youths together at her home and told them to stop fighting. A friend of Ikaneng, he said, came up with the idea of forming a soccer club as a way of bringing about the reconciliation.

Soccer clubs named after famous political prisoners like Mandela and Walter Sisulu were then in fashion in Soweto, according to another account of how it all started. But Nomavenda Mathiane, the first black writer to expose the inner workings of the club, wrote that it rapidly became evident that Mandela United was not a "normal" soccer club. It played few, if any, games and instead began fighting other student gangs for control of turf.

Ikaneng told the Independent that on Jan. 27, 1987, "all the members of the club who were staying at Mrs. Mandela's house were arrested" in connection with a double murder at a bar by one of its members, Oupa Seheri. The weapon he had used was traced to Winnie Mandela's Soweto home.

Members of Mandela United then apparently took on the role of bodyguards, a "people's court" and "enforcers" of the instant sentences meted out by the club.

Seipei's murder was only the last in a series of violent activities involving Mandela United members, three of whom are now on death row. But when Richardson was put on trial last year, allegations that Winnie Mandela was directly involved began to surface in the testimony of three youths who were allegedly kidnapped and assaulted along with Seipei.

The four allegedly were taken by force from the home of Methodist minister Paul Verryn, who ran his own center for runaway youths in Soweto. Winnie Mandela allegedly was told Verryn was sexually molesting the boys and that Seipei was a police informer.

The three youths testified that Winnie Mandela participated directly in punching and beating them all with a leather sjombok, or whip, at her home Dec. 29, 1988, and alleged she cried out, "You are not fit to be alive." None of the three said they actually saw Richardson kill Seipei. But they testifed Richardson took him from Winnie Mandela's home the night before he was stabbed to death on Jan. 1.

Winnie Mandela has said she was not at her home during those days and that she has a witness to prove it. But the judge in the Richardson trial said her alibi "did not impress" him and he issued a finding that she must have been there at least part of the time.