Nelson, Winnie Mandela agree to end marriage Scandals force end for S. African pair

April 14, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Nelson and Winnie Mandela, South Africa's most famous couple and international symbols of the struggle for freedom, have agreed to split up, Mr. Mandela announced yesterday in an emotional statement.

The marriage, which lasted through Mr. Mandela's 27 years of imprisonment by the South African government, survived only 26 months after his release in February 1990.

The news of its demise was announced by a sober-faced Mr. Mandela, 73, who was surrounded by his longtime comrades in the anti-apartheid struggle. Mrs. Mandela, his flamboyant, charismatic, scandal-plagued wife, was not present.

"I part from my wife with no recriminations," said Mr. Mandela,

president of the African National Congress, in a soft voice that broke slightly as he finished reading a brief statement. "I embrace her with all the love and affection I have nursed for her inside and outside prison from the moment I first met her."

But he said he and Mrs. Mandela had agreed mutually to separate because of "tensions that have arisen owing to differences between us on a number of issues in recent months."

He added: "My action was not prompted by the current allegations being made against her in the media."

Mrs. Mandela, 57, was convicted last year of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault in the December 1988 abduction of four young men from a Methodist church-run home for troubled boys.

She was sentenced to six years in jail and released on bail pending her appeal, which is scheduled to begin late this month.

There have been rumors for several weeks that Mr. Mandela planned to divorce his wife of 34 years because she had become a liability to the anti-apartheid movement and to his organization, which is expected to be the key player in a new democratic government.

"The organization could no longer withstand the strain," said Fatima Meer, a friend of the family and Mr. Mandela's official biographer.

"I suppose one should have expected this to happen," she said. "The underlying factor is that this is a decision taken because of the organization. The public has had to take precedence over the personal."

In the past week, there has been a spate of damaging news reports about Mrs. Mandela, including statements by her co-defendants that they lied to protect her in the kidnap and assault trial last year.

Mrs. Mandela has denied the recent accusations.

Some of Mr. Mandela's colleagues had reportedly urged him to distance himself from his wife for the sake of the anti-apartheid, pro-democracy movement. He apparently has taken their advice.

The announcement ends an important part of the Mandela legend, which Mrs. Mandela helped to keep alive during his long years as a political prisoner.

She earned the admiration of people around the world for her defiance of the government during the worst years of apartheid, when she was repeatedly harassed and banished to a small right-wing town.

The trouble began when she returned to Soweto in 1985 and surrounded herself, apparently for protection from harassment, with a gang of young thugs who called themselves the Mandela United Football Club.

Soweto residents say the club terrorized the community. After the news broke about the 1988 kidnapping and abduction, a group of anti-apartheid leaders blamed Mrs. Mandela and disassociated themselves from her and her club.

Mrs. Mandela's fortunes rose again after her husband lovingly embraced her following his release from prison on Feb. 11, 1991.

Mr. Mandela rejected charges against her as new attempts by the state to discredit the Mandela name, and Mrs. Mandela rose to several positions in the ANC, including head of its social welfare department. But her trial last year and the increasingly negative reports about her behavior took their toll on her marriage.

In announcing their separation, Mr. Mandela praised his wife for standing up to the "persecutions heaped upon her" over the years and for raising his children alone during his long absence. "My love for her remains undiminished," he said.

He added that Mrs. Mandela "can continue to rely on my unstinting support during these trying moments in her life" and that he would never regret the life they "tried to share together."

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