SA's miracle marriage ends in bathos

Johannesburg - The Mandelas had no ordinary marriage, and no ordinary break-up.

By the time Nelson Mandela got the divorce he asked for yesterday, the South African President had been compelled to testify in court for the first time since the notorious treason trial in 1964. And Winnie Mandela had fired her lawyer, failed to challenge her husband's accusations of adultery, and was told by the judge to sit down and stop stalling. "This is no ordinary case," she pleaded.

"It's very sad," said George Bizos, a lawyer who represented both Mandelas over the years. "But one has to be sensible. Someone like the President cannot be put in such a position." Today the court will consider the financial settlement in what promises to be a bitter dispute. Mrs Mandela is reportedly seeking half her husband's estate. Mr Mandela's salary is 552,000 rand (about pounds 92,000) a year and most of his income from his best-selling autobiography goes to charity. An affidavit supporting his divorce request accuses Winnie of living beyond her means, earning 16,000 rand (pounds 2,600) a month and spending R107,000 - including R10,000 on clothing, R2,000 on make-up, and R12,000 on entertainment.

Mr Mandela took the stand on Monday - the first time since he was sentenced to life 32 years ago on sabotage charges against the apartheid state. Calmly, he said his marriage had broken down almost immediately after he was freed in 1990 to negotiate an end to apartheid.

He felt nothing but loneliness living with Winnie, and became convinced of her infidelity after a newspaper editor showed him a love letter she had written to her personal assistant, Dali Mpofu, a lawyer.

The Mandelas separated in 1992 after Winnie was convicted and fined in the kidnapping by her bodyguards of four youths, one of whom was found beaten to death.

On cross-examination yesterday the defence lawyer, Ismail Semenya, asked Mr Mandela to recall his wife's suffering during their marriage. "She was subjected to very cruel persecution by the security police of the day," Mr Mandela said. But he added: "There were many women in this country who suffered far more than she did."

As the judge pressed for direct answers to challenge allegations that would be legal grounds for divorce - adultery and the couple's long separation - Mr Semenya whispered to Winnie, then announced he had been fired. Winnie begged for a postponement to find a new lawyer. Mr Mandela's counsel and the judge called it a ploy to buy time.

The judge eventually ordered the case closed. Mr Mandela sat stoically, blinking occasionally. Winnie appeared drawn. Neither looked at the other.

Outside the courthouse, most of the 100 or so people awaiting a verdict opposed the divorce. "I think I'm disappointed with both of them," said Louisa Dikgale, a student. "When you're separated, you can try to get back together. This is the President. He should be a role model. Everybody makes mistakes." The couple wed in 1958 after Mr Mandela divorced his first wife.

During her husband's imprisonment, Winnie became an anti-apartheid leader in her own right, popular with the African National Congress's radical wing.

She lost influence as Mr Mandela pushed the ANC along a moderate course and was fired early last year as deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology after a series of controversies. She remains an MP and leads the ANC Women's League.