President Nelson Mandela will seek an amicable divorce from his estranged wife, Winnie, according to his lawyer, finally ending the tumultuous 37-year union of South Africa’s first couple of liberation.
Their fairy-tale marriage turned tragic years ago. Mandela legally separated from his wife in April, 1992, two years after he was released from 27 years in prison for attempting to overthrow the apartheid regime.
While Mandela became a global beacon of moral authority, sordid scandals seemed to surround his wife. She was convicted of kidnaping in 1991, publicly accused of everything from infidelity to embezzlement and has been the target of a police investigation into bribery and influence-peddling since February.
Mandela fired her in April from a deputy Cabinet post for her sharp attacks on his government and defiance of his orders. Despite fears of Mandela’s aides that her dismissal would prove divisive, Mrs. Mandela--a fiery orator long considered the country’s most powerful black woman--has largely faded from public view since then.
The divorce was disclosed by Ismael Ayob, Mandela’s longtime lawyer. His office confirmed Friday that he had begun divorce proceedings on behalf of the president. It was unclear if Ayob had filed legal papers, however, and no timetable or other details were given.
“The matter is being dealt with sensitively and is being discussed between lawyers,” Ayob said, according to an aide.
But Willie Sereti, Mrs. Mandela’s chief lawyer, said in a telephone interview that he was “unaware” of a divorce action. He also denied that negotiations toward an out-of-court settlement were under way.
“This claim of alleged settlement negotiations comes as a complete surprise to us,” Sereti said. He said he first heard of it when Mrs. Mandela telephoned him after hearing a radio report of Ayob’s statement.
A key aide to the president confirmed that a divorce was under way. And the president pointedly did not deny Ayob’s comments when reporters cornered him after a speech in Cape Town.
“I hope you will understand that we have been together since 1958,” he said, “and whatever is happening is something which causes deep trauma, and I would, therefore, appreciate if you do not interrogate me on this matter.”
Mrs. Mandela, 60, refused to comment to reporters Friday. Her lawyer, Sereti, declined to say if she would contest the proposed divorce.
Lawyers here said that, if she does oppose it, the case almost surely will wind up in court, with inevitable publicity of her alleged affairs and his growing finances.
Mandela, now 77, is believed to have grown wealthy since his release from prison. He has indicated that he gave away his half share of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize and donates half his annual presidential salary to a children’s charity trust that he founded.
He owns a large home in a Johannesburg suburb, a holiday cottage and property in the Transkei region, and reportedly drew a multimillion-dollar advance for his 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.”
The couple enjoyed a whirlwind romance after Mandela, then one of South Africa’s only black lawyers and a fast-rising leader of the African National Congress, first spied the beautiful young woman on a street corner. Mandela soon divorced his first wife, who had no interest in politics, and remarried.
They quickly had two daughters, but Mandela was often overseas or on the run before he was jailed in 1962. Two years later, he was sentenced to life in prison and effectively disappeared from view for more than a quarter of a century.
Mandela was allowed only rare, brief visits with his wife during his long incarceration. He has written that he wrote her passionate letters and polished her photo in his tiny cell each day.
Mrs. Mandela, in turn, was jailed, harassed and finally banished in 1976 to Brandfort, a remote rural township, by the white authorities. But her open defiance of their harsh edicts earned her growing international fame. And her blazing oratory, populist politics and flamboyant style won her a fervent following at home, especially among the poorest of the poor.
But in 1991, she was convicted of kidnaping and being an accessory to assault for sending her bodyguards to abduct four young activists in Soweto, one of whom was later found beaten to death. Mrs. Mandela’s conviction was upheld on appeal, but her six-year prison sentence was reduced to a $5,000 fine.
“It seems to be the destiny of freedom fighters,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography, “to have unstable personal lives.”