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Mandela: Winnie made me the loneliest man

There was a fleeting moment when the sadness left Nelson Mandela's face at his divorce trial in Johannesburg yesterday. It was when his estranged wife, Winnie, first entered the courtroom. He caught sight of her, and for a moment, smiled. She, in response, turned away.

If there were any lingering doubts in the South African President's mind over his decision to end his 38 years with a woman whom he once worshipped, they must have faded away in that moment.

It was not long after that Mr Mandela told a court packed with journalists, television cameras and the curious: "If the entire universe persuaded me to reconcile with the defendant I would not ... I am determined to get rid of the marriage."

Once the icons of the anti-apartheid struggle, Nelson and Winnie Mandela are almost certain to be, finally and officially, divorced.

Mr Mandela's lawyer, Wim Trengove, argued that the President's marriage was beyond repair. He said Mr Mandela rejected his estranged wife's assertion that any arbitration could bring the two back together. There was, Mr Trengove said, simply nothing to salvage.

But it took the man himself to bring home that message. Composed but visibly sorrowful, Mr Mandela told how his wife accomplished in two years what 27 years in prison failed to achieve: she made him feel humiliated and lonely. "Ever since I came back from prison, not once has the defendant ever entered our bedroom while I was awake," the 77-year-old President told the Rand Supreme Court in Johannesburg.

"The bedroom is where a man and woman discuss the most intimate details. There were so many things I wanted to discuss with her, but she is the type of person who fears confrontation. I was the loneliest man during the period I stayed with her."

The President initiated divorce proceedings in 1992, two years after his release from jail. Mr Mandela told the court that it was her "brazen conduct" which convinced him to end the marriage. He then recounted how in August 1992 he was given a letter supposedly written by Mrs Mandela which confirmed his suspicions of her infidelity with a young lawyer from the African National Congress. He said had tried to make the parting as painless as possible for the benefit of their two daughters, Zindzi and Zenani, but felt compelled to disclose the affair. "I did not wish us to wash our dirty linen in public," he said.

Mr Mandela will be questioned today by his wife's lawyer. Mrs Mandela is expected to take the stand tomorrow when her counter claim to assess her husband's estate is heard; she is seeking at least half. It may be a small price compared to what the President said she has already taken.