SA sighs with relief as Winnie avoids jail: An appeal judge's decision not to imprison Mrs Mandela has removed a serious threat to the peace talks, writes John Carlin from Johannesburg

BY A HAPPY coincidence, South Africa's independent judiciary delivered the most politically neutral verdict possible yesterday on Winnie Mandela's appeal against her conviction and sentence on charges of kidnapping and assault. Mrs Mandela was found guilty of kidnapping but she is not going to jail.

Justice M Corbett, South Africa's Chief Justice, ruled yesterday at the appeal court in Bloemfontein - the highest in the land - that two years ago the trial judge had been correct in finding Mrs Mandela guilty of kidnapping four Soweto youths. But he had erred in finding her guilty on charges of accessory to assault.

The Chief Justice agreed, however, there was no doubt that 'Stompie' Moeketsi Seipei and three other young men had been kidnapped and assaulted in Mrs Mandela's home in December 1988. Indeed, another court found in 1990 that Stompie, a 14-year-old activist loyal to the African National Congress activist, was subsequently murdered by Mrs Mandela's bodyguard, Jerry Richardson.

In court in May 1991 Mrs Mandela received a five-year sentence for the kidnapping and one year for assault. Yesterday the Chief Justice replaced the five-year sentence with a fine of 15,000 rand ( pounds 3,000) or one year in jail. Additionally he gave her a two-year jail sentence suspended on condition that she did not commit a similar crime during the next five years. A second condition for the suspension was that she pay each of the three surviving kidnap victims R5,000 each in compensation.

Mrs Mandela's co-accused, Xoliswa Falati, lost her appeal on every count but her six-year sentence was commuted to two, with two years suspended. The Chief Justice did not take into account newspaper claims by Mrs Falati that she had lied in court to protect Mrs Mandela.

A friend of Mrs Mandela reported yesterday that she was 'ecstatic, very happy' about the verdict but was unwilling immediately to speak to reporters, dozens of whom besieged her Johannesburg office. Nelson Mandela, who announced his separation from his wife a year ago, limited himself to saying he was pleased she was not going to jail.

But both he and President F W de Klerk, whom he met yesterday, would have been almost as ecstatic as Mrs Mandela herself at the outcome of the appeal - for political reasons. ANC leaders and government officials eager to see negotiations progress as peacefully as possible towards democratic elections feared the consequences of Mrs Mandela being put in jail.

Following close on the assassination of the ANC leader Chris Hani, Mrs Mandela's perceived martyrdom would almost certainly have unleashed the fury of those small but militant sectors of black township youth who persist in seeing her as a heroine. The South African political centre that Mr Mandela and Mr de Klerk are striving in their separate ways to build would have been endangered once again.

On the other hand, the Chief Justice's decision to uphold Mrs Mandela's conviction on the kidnapping charges will appease those in both the black and white community - and indeed a number of senior ANC officials - convinced of her guilt not only in this matter but, by association, in numerous other crimes involving her bodyguards, members of the so-called Mandela United football club.

A joint investigation by the Independent and the BBC three years ago linked members of the club, formed in 1986, to 16 murders and several cases of assault. Yesterday the office of the attorney-general in Johannesburg said that investigations were continuing into the disappearance of two youths in November 1988. One of them, Lolo Sono, was last seen by his father, beaten and bloodied, in a van owned by Mrs Mandela. She was in the passenger seat at the time, Mr Sono said.

Another case which has not been entirely closed concerns the murder in January 1989 of a Soweto doctor, Abu-Baker Asvat, to which Mrs Mandela has been consistently linked by the doctor's family. Yesterday the Azanian Peoples' Organisation, a radical Black Consciousness group to which Dr Asvat belonged, issued a statement saying the appeal court verdict was 'neither here nor there' as the South African judiciary pandered to party political wishes. The judiciary had turned a blind eye to the Asvat case, Azapo said, adding that no attempt had been made to obtain the testimony of a key witness, Katiza Cebekhulu. Mr Cebekhulu, who was spirited out of South Africa by ANC officials shortly before the start of Mrs Mandela's trial, has been holed up in neighbouring Zambia ever since, most of the time in jail.

Yesterday some ANC officials expressed their delight at the appeal court's decision to spare Mrs Mandela, forgetting that others had long ago declared her guilty not only of kidnapping but of murder. Cyril Ramaphosa, today ANC Secretary General, was one of the guiding lights behind a statement in March 1989 by the pro-ANC Mass Democratic Movement condemning her role in the Stompie killing.

She made a political recovery after Mr Mandela's release from prison in February 1990 but her fortunes fell again last year, after Mr Ramaphosa's had risen. Her husband, who had learnt of her affair with a young lawyer, left her and the ANC, harbouring suspicions about the mismanagement of funds in the social welfare department she then headed, stripped her of her official titles in the organisation.

In recent months she has bounced back, rebuilding her constituency among radicals with public denunciations of the ANC leadership.

(Photograph omitted)

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