Judge suspends jail sentence on Winnie Mandela in fraud case

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South Africa's anti-apartheid heroine Winnie Madikizela-Mandela will not go to jail after an appeal court reduced a theft and fraud sentence against her.

South Africa's anti-apartheid heroine Winnie Madikizela-Mandela will not go to jail after an appeal court reduced a theft and fraud sentence against her.

Nelson Mandela's former wife, 67, was sentenced to a five-year term last year over allegations that she defrauded a local bank of the equivalent of £85,000 through loans obtained for fictitious employees of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) Women's league, which she then headed.

Madikizela-Mandela, still referred to as "mother of the nation" by her supporters, appealed against her conviction on 43 charges of fraud and 25 of theft and was released on bail pending an appeal.

Judge Eberhardt Bertelsmann of the Pretoria High Court scrapped her conviction on the theft charges but upheld the fraud charges. He then reduced the sentence from five years to three years and six months and then declared it suspended in full. In justifying his decision, Judge Bertelsmann said that Madikizela-Mandela had had a long and often "difficult role in public life" and that during her lifetime she had supported a greater cause than her own.

Madikizela-Mandela announced that she would appeal against the judgment on the fraud charges, which she said were "completely wrong", amid singing and chanting by a large group of supporters who had gathered inside and outside the courtroom. "I am as fine as I have always been," added Madikizela-Mandela, who had remained calm in court as the judgment was given.

Her supporters also engaged in the popular toyi-toyi dance, a warlike shuffle from the anti-apartheid struggle era, as the smartly dressed Madikizela-Mandela, wearing a gold and black outfit and matching headdress, emerged from the court.

She had been convicted by a lower court because she had signed letters used in obtaining the loans for the bogus Women's League employees. During the trial, Madikizela-Mandela argued that she had signed the letters without having meticulously followed their contents.

Her co-accused, the broker Addy Moolman, had all 25 theft convictions against him quashed, but 58 counts of fraud were upheld, and his five-year jail sentence was reduced to four. Moolman said he would also appeal against the decision.

The ANC welcomed the ruling on Madikizela-Mandela, though it said it would have preferred all charges against her to have been scrapped. "Her experiences and leadership are valued by everyone across the racial spectrum in our country and throughout the world," the party said in a statement. "It is because of this wealth of experience and leadership that we believe she still has a valuable role to play in our society."

The statement from the ruling party offered Madikizela-Mandela some hope of being re-accepted into a leadership position in the ruling party. She had resigned all her positions, including her parliamentary seat, after her conviction last year.

Mr Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1967, six years after he married Madikizela-Mandela. She became the torch-bearer of the anti-apartheid struggle while her husband languished in jail. But she became involved in a number of controversies. Her group of thugs called the Mandela United Football Club murdered a young activist, Stompei Sepei, a case which led to her conviction on a kidnapping charge. She was involved in affairs with young men, leading to her divorce from Mr Mandela in 1992. Mr Mandela is now married to Grace Machel, widow of the former Mozambican president Samora Machel.