President Nelson Mandela and his estranged wife, Winnie--the first couple of South Africa’s liberation--were divorced Tuesday after an emotional two-day trial that forced one of the world’s most revered leaders to publicly accuse his wife of adultery.
Mandela blinked hard and appeared pained as Judge Christopher F. Eloff granted his plea to end the 38-year marriage. Sitting slumped on the same bench, Mrs. Mandela stared down, her face drawn and grim. They left the crowded courtroom without speaking or even glancing at each other.
Moments earlier, Mrs. Mandela had surprised the court by suddenly firing her lawyers and pleading for a trial delay so she could find new counsel. “I seek the sympathy of this court,” she said, seeming near tears.
The judge refused her request, and Mrs. Mandela declined to testify on her own.
Eloff then said he was permitting the divorce because Mrs. Mandela had not contested the president’s chief claim: that she had conducted a “brazen and indiscreet” affair with a young lover after Mandela was freed in 1990 from 27 years in prison.
Mandela, 77, testified Monday that he had hoped he and his wife, 61, could work out their problems in the intimacy of their bedroom after his release but that “not once has the defendant ever entered our bedroom while I was awake.”
“I was the loneliest man during the period I stayed with her,” he added sadly. The couple formally separated in April 1992, but Mandela, an intensely private man, never publicly explained why.
Mandela said his wife had refused his repeated attempts to settle out of court, “with dignity.” He angrily rejected her last-minute effort to use a tribal elder to negotiate a reconciliation, saying the “entire universe” could not persuade him now.
In a deposition released Tuesday, Mandela called his wife “a continuing personal and public embarrassment to me” and said it was “entirely inappropriate” to be in divorce court “when I am required to host other heads of state and foreign dignitaries.”
Mandela denied in his deposition that Mrs. Mandela’s 1991 conviction for the assault and kidnapping of four youths, including a 14-year-old boy who was murdered by her chief bodyguard, was “even a significant factor in the breakdown of our relationship. The defendant assured me of her innocence and I was prepared to accept her word.”
Instead, Mandela said their union was “finally and irrevocably destroyed” in September 1992 when a Johannesburg newspaper published a letter Mrs. Mandela had written to Dali Mpofu, a lawyer with the African National Congress. The letter confirmed that the two were lovers, Mandela said.
“She was said to be lavishing large gifts on him,” he said. “The two of them took overseas trips together as employees of the ANC, contrary to my express instruction. Their conduct in flouting my authority as president of the ANC enjoyed wide publicity and caused me embarrassment.”
Mandela said that he and his wife had not spoken for several years, except for “the occasional exchange of pleasantries” in public. “There is in fact no personal relationship left between us. Our marriage continues to exist only on paper.”
On Tuesday, Mandela repeatedly warned and begged his wife’s lawyer, Ishmael Semenya, not to push him on his wife’s alleged infidelity.
“I am not keen to wash our dirty laundry in public,” he said gravely. “I appeal to you not to put questions to me that would force me to reveal certain facts that would bring a great deal of pain to our children and grandchildren.”
Mandela, who wore a three-piece charcoal-gray suit rather than his customary batik shirt, was addressed as “Mr. President” as he testified. Standing stiffly in the witness box, he referred to his wife only as “the defendant.” She wore a conservative gray jacket and skirt, not the colorful African robes she often dons.
Eloff ordered Mrs. Mandela, who had contested the divorce, to pay her former husband’s legal costs. But Wim Trengrove, Mandela’s lead attorney, said later that the president would be unlikely to seek payment from her.
The case of Mandela vs. Mandela will continue today, when the judge will consider Mrs. Mandela’s claim that she is entitled to half the president’s assets. A Johannesburg newspaper, the City Press, has estimated his worth at about $10 million, but Mandela’s aides have said he has donated most of his salary, book profits, awards and other earnings to charity.
In his deposition, Mandela said his wife earns about $4,100 a month as a member of Parliament but that she leads a “luxurious lifestyle” that costs more than $27,000 a month, including about $2,500 for clothing, $500 for cosmetics and $3,000 for entertainment.
The Mandelas had long embodied the sacrifice and struggle of the anti-apartheid movement. They wed in 1958 after Mandela divorced his first wife. He was repeatedly detained and jailed, and finally convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison in 1964.
During his imprisonment, Mrs. Mandela became known as “Mother of the Nation” for her fiery speeches and fierce defiance of white authorities. She was fired as a deputy government minister last year after she disobeyed the president’s instructions.