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Winnie Mandela Fined but Is Spared Jail Term : S. Africa: Highest court upholds conviction, lightens sentence. Ruling averts embarrassment for both black and white leaders.

June 03, 1993|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Neatly averting embarrassment for both the white government and Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, South Africa's highest court Wednesday upheld Winnie Mandela's kidnaping conviction but replaced her six-year jail sentence with a $5,000 fine.

"I'm very happy my estranged wife will not have to go to jail," Nelson Mandela told reporters during a tour of townships near Cape Town.

Winnie Mandela declined comment, but she celebrated with champagne in her downtown office, and a friend described her as "ecstatic."

In their 192-page judgment, the five Appeals Court judges in Bloemfontein unanimously affirmed Judge Michael Stegmann's district court conviction of Winnie Mandela on charges of kidnaping four young black men in Soweto in December, 1988. One of those abducted, 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, was beaten to death.

But the Appeals Court set aside Mandela's convictions on lesser charges of being an accessory "after the fact" to assault and it reduced her six-year prison sentence to the fine and a two-year suspended sentence. It also ordered her to pay 5,000 rand (approximately $1,650) compensation to each of the three surviving victims.

The decision concludes the legal case against Mandela, 58, who had been free on $70 bail, and removes the main obstacle to a full resumption of her political activities.

Last year, after separation from her husband, she resigned from the ANC's national executive committee and stepped down as head of the ANC's social welfare department and of the ANC Women's League's Johannesburg-area branch, retaining only her ANC membership card.

But memories of her long years of struggle against apartheid are vivid in the townships, and her strong opposition to current negotiations with the government has won her substantial support among the impoverished, disenfranchised black masses.

The ruling was generally welcomed Wednesday by black and white political leaders, many of whom had feared that sending Mandela to prison might trigger an uprising among her thousands of radical supporters.

President Frederik W. de Klerk's ruling National Party said it respects the court's judgment.

ANC Youth League leader Peter Mokaba, a Winnie Mandela confidant, said the ruling is a vindication.

"We hope that those who thought she would be buried by this will say they were wrong," Mokaba said. The fine and suspended sentence constitute "a political sentence which has nothing to do with whether she was guilty or not," he added. "She will be judged on her political work and the homework she has done within the community."

The ruling stemmed from incidents that took place in December, 1988, and January, 1989, more than a year before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Four young men were abducted from a church halfway house by Winnie Mandela's driver, John Morgan, and a Mandela friend, Xoliswa Falati. Falati and Mandela testified that they believed the youths were being sexually abused by the Methodist pastor who runs the halfway house.

Two of the men were kept at Mandela's home for 18 days, and a third escaped after nine days. Two of the victims testified that all were beaten by Winnie Mandela and her retinue of young bodyguards. Seipei disappeared after three days, and his body was later found in a Soweto field. One of Mandela's bodyguards was convicted of murder in that case.

Judge Stegmann, in sentencing Mandela in 1991 to five years for kidnaping and one year for assault, said she had misused her leadership position and showed "not the slightest remorse."

The judges also reduced Falati's six-year sentence to four years, citing her "clean record" and unspecified "personal circumstances." Morgan, the 64-year-old driver, did not appeal his one-year suspended sentence.

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