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Mandela's Ex-Wife Avoids Jail - 2004-07-05

A South African high court has, on appeal, wholly suspended Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's earlier jail sentence on charges of fraud. The judge also overturned her conviction for theft.

Judge Eberhard Bertelsmann partly upheld Madikizela-Mandela's appeal, reducing her original sentence from five to 3.5 years, and overturning her conviction for theft. He then wholly suspended the sentence for five years.

In making his ruling the judge said the ex-wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela had had a long and often difficult role in public life, and that during her lifetime, she supported a greater cause than her own. In addition, he said, she did not commit the crimes for personal gain.

Madikizela-Mandela and her co-defendant, Addy Moolman, were convicted last year on dozens of charges of fraud and theft, after using stationery of the African National Congress to seek bank loans for nonexistent employees.

Madikizela-Mandela rose to political prominence during the 1960s treason trial of her then-husband, Nelson Mandela. During his years in prison, she became his public face and voice, and, as a result, was targeted by the then-apartheid government. She was first imprisoned and later banished to Brandfort, a tiny town five hours from Johannesburg.

Her good works among the poor won her considerable popular support, which eventually led to her being dubbed the mother of the nation.

When she returned to Soweto from Brandfort in the late 1980s, she became embroiled in one scandal after another, leading to her conviction in the 1989 assault and the kidnapping of a 13-year-old activist, who was later found murdered. Her six-year sentence was reduced to a fine on appeal. Even though he stood resolutely by her during the trial, Mr. Mandela divorced her in 1995.

Madikizela-Mandela was the subject of a 1998 Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing, which heard how she and her bodyguards had terrorized Sowetans in the waning years of apartheid. Victim after victim testified to torture and other ill-treatment, while several others testified that their loved ones went missing after being with Madikizela-Mandela and members of her bodyguard.

Although she remains popular with the poor in some areas, she no longer commands deference from party leaders. But, the ANC welcomed the court's decision, saying in a statement that her experiences and leadership are valued across the racial spectrum in South Africa and abroad.

Following the ruling, Madikizela-Mandela said she has instructed her lawyers to appeal the fraud conviction, saying the judgment is, in her words, completely wrong.