Nelson Mandela Wins DivorceBy Lynne Duke
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 20 1996; Page B02
After a tortuous day that ended with Winnie Mandela firing her lawyer and standing alone to plead for sympathy, a Supreme Court judge today declared the 38-year marriage of South African President Nelson Mandela and his estranged wife officially dissolved.
The divorce ends months of private wrangling and two days of poignant public disclosures that cast Mandela, the grandfatherly symbol of national racial reconciliation, as unable or unwilling to reconcile with the wife he said made him feel like the "loneliest man."
Although Winnie Mandela did not take the stand, she shaped a defense that argued a debt is due her for her role in keeping the Mandela name alive and for her suffering in the struggle against apartheid, or white minority rule.
Her lawyer, on cross-examination of President Mandela today, led the court through a detailed account of the many arrests, bannings, raids on her house and attempts on her life that Mrs. Mandela suffered at the hands of a succession of apartheid regimes because of her political activities and her famous surname. Neither she nor her lawyers contested Mandela's assertions of her "brazen infidelity" following his 1990 release from 27 years of political imprisonment.
What political ramifications the Mandela divorce may have are yet to be seen, and may be minimal, considering that the couple have been separated since April 1992 and have continued since then to operate within the same political ambit. Both Mandelas are powerful within the African National Congress, the liberation movement turned majority political party.
The divorce, for Winnie Mandela, Mandela's second wife, is the latest in a long series of personal and political setbacks in which she has shown remarkable resilience. She has been accused of and investigated for misuse of funds, though without charges being brought. She has been convicted on a kidnapping charge stemming from the abduction of a 14-year-old boy who was later found beaten to death. Her bold rhetoric, accompanied by the battle fatigues she used to wear on the liberation stump, unsettled white South Africans who viewed her as a radical threat.
Her lawyers attempted to portray President Mandela as being influenced by a racially inspired smear campaign against his wife. But he shot back, "I was never influenced by those who are my enemies."
As the hearing wound down, with her lawyer failing in yet another request for a postponement of the case, Winnie Mandela stood alone before Judge Frikkie Eloff and pleaded to be allowed time to hire new attorneys and present witnesses.
"My case cannot be closed, my lord," Mrs. Mandela said, appearing humbled and without the fiery spirit that is her trademark. "I seek the sympathy of this court. There is nothing I can do on my own."
After describing her removal of defense counsel Ismail Semenya as a ploy to secure a delay, Eloff said, "Mrs. Mandela, the case is in your hands now. You have the right to address me . . . to tell me why you conclude there should not be a decree of divorce."
"This is no ordinary case. There are other relevant issues," she responded.
"Is that all you wish to say?"
And so it ended, with Eloff's decree coming a short time later.
A hearing was scheduled for Wednesday on a financial settlement, but it's unclear whether it will even take place, what with her bid today to fire her lawyers. She has asked for half of her husband's assets, though the extent of his wealth remains in question.
On the downtown streets around the Supreme Court building, news of the divorce jolted many onlookers. Joyce Tshite, 33, began crying when told that the Mandela marriage was officially over. "Oh, what a shame," she said, complaining that Mandela should have given his wife another chance. "I am touched by this. I am really touched."
"At least it's a relief that it's over," said another woman, Caro Nkabinde, 26. "For the old man, it's a relief."
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company