Mandela wins end to marriage he said 'existed only on paper' Judge rejects wife's plea for time after firing lawyer

March 20, 1996|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Nelson Mandela was granted a divorce from his wife, Winnie, yesterday after a two-day trial that saw Mrs. Mandela dismiss her attorney in court and then plead for more time to develop a case with a new lawyer.

When Judge Frikkie Eloff refused to delay the proceedings, Mrs. Mandela gave no evidence in her behalf and the judge quickly decided in favor of Mr. Mandela, who separated from his wife in 1992 and filed for divorce 18 months ago.

Mr. Mandela was the only witness to testify in the trial. He was cross-examined yesterday morning by Mrs. Mandela's lawyer, Ismail Semenya.

In direct testimony Monday, Mr. Mandela, 77, asserted that the 38-year marriage "existed only on paper" since his release from 27 years of imprisonment in 1990. He accused his wife of an adulterous affair that was publicized in 1992.

None of the questions put to Mr. Mandela yesterday challenged those points, as Mr. Semenya first went through the years that Mrs. Mandela spent raising their children while under intense political persecution during his years in prison. He then focused on the possibility of a reconciliation mediated by elders in the Mandelas' branch of the Xhosa tribe.

Mr. Mandela agreed that his wife suffered during his 27 years in jail, though he said other women suffered more during the fight against white rule. And he rejected any reconciliation, saying that the proposed mediator, Kaiser Matanizime, got his title of paramount chief of the Tembu people only by cooperating with the apartheid government.

"I respect tradition and know these things are very important for people in rural areas, but I do not think they have any authority over a civil marriage between people who have lived in town for decades," he said.

Several times during his testimony, Mr. Mandela cautioned Mr. Semenya not to go further into certain areas.

"I appeal to you not to put any questions to me which may compel me to dent the image of the defendant and bring a great deal of pain to our children and grandchildren," he said.

"I am not keen to wash our dirty linen in public," he added. It was not clear if he was referring to sexual or financial transgressions, but Mr. Semenya did seem to take the warnings seriously.

When Mr. Mandela finished testifying, his attorney, Wim Trengrove, noting that there was no challenge to the assertion of adultery or to the fact that the marriage essentially no longer existed, rested his case.

Mr. Semenya, as he had when the trial began Monday, then asked for a postponement to consult with his client and prepare other witnesses, including Mr. Matanizime and a former undercover police operative who has claimed to have conducted a campaign to discredit Mrs. Mandela.

Judge Eloff granted a two-hour recess, but Mr. Semenya returned and said that had not been enough time.

When the judge refused to grant any further delay, Mr. Semenya talked briefly with his client and then told the court, "My instructions have been withdrawn," essentially saying Mrs. Mandela had fired him, though he remained at her side for the remainder of the trial.

At this point, Judge Eloff said that Mrs. Mandela was now free to proceed with her own case, call witnesses or give evidence, but, speaking for the first time in court, she refused.

"My defense has informed me that they are unable to continue, that they cannot proceed with my instructions," said Mrs. Mandela, 61.

"I want to give evidence but I am unable to do this myself without the advice of an attorney," she said, sounding shaken. Again, she asked for a postponement, this time until she could get a new lawyer.

Mr. Trengrove dismissed the move as "the oldest trick in the book" by those who fail in getting court proceedings delayed.

"There is no ploy whatsoever in my position," Mrs. Mandela countered, but the judge again ruled against any delay.

But after taking 20 minutes to ponder his decision, Judge Eloff declared, "The plaintiff is entitled to a divorce."

All that remains is for the court to decide a financial settlement. Mrs. Mandela is seeking half of Mr. Mandela's assets, reportedly close to $15 million.

Pub Date: 3/20/96

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