JOHANNESBURG -- The Appellate Division of South Africa's Supreme Court ruled out a jail sentence for Winnie Mandela yesterday in the 1988 kidnapping of four young Soweto residents, one of whom was later found murdered.
Mrs. Mandela, 59, the estranged wife of Nelson Mandela, head of the African National Congress (ANC), was convicted two years ago on charges of kidnapping and accessory to assault after the fact. She was sentenced to six years in jail by a judge who described her as a "deliberate and unblushing liar."
But yesterday, the Appeal Court threw out the accessory charge and reduced the kidnapping penalty to a $4,800 fine and a two-year suspended sentence. In addition, Mrs. Mandela must pay a total of $1,600 to each of the three youths who survived the kidnapping.
Though the court based its findings on the unreliability of prosecution witnesses and its belief that there may have been an altruistic motive for the kidnappings, the decision was widely viewed as a political compromise, keeping Mrs. Mandela out of jail but still with a serious conviction on her record.
"I'm very relieved," she said after receiving the news in her Johannesburg office where she celebrated with champagne and orange juice.
Mrs. Mandela told reporters she was grateful to those who had never lost faith in her, particularly her two daughters. She has been free during the appeal process.
Mr. Mandela, in Cape Town for meetings with South African President F. W. De Klerk, said, "I am very happy my estranged wife will not have to go to jail."
After her conviction, Mrs. Mandela and her husband announced their separation, and she lost her positions in the top of the ANC's hierarchy. She has since emerged as a leader of the more radical young members of the party.
Though widely hailed as a steadfast leader of the anti-apartheid movement during the 27 years of her husband's imprisonment, Mrs. Mandela's reputation was damaged beginning in the late 1980s when Soweto residents began complaining about the actions of a group of youths who lived under her patronage.
Known as the Mandela Soccer Club, the group was denounced by many as a gang of young toughs who terrorized residents that did not toe Mrs. Mandela's line.
That was alleged to have been the fate of the four teen-agers who were taken from a Methodist home Dec. 29, 1989, to Mrs. Mandela's house where they were beaten. The body of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, one of the four, was found in a field Jan. 6, 1989.
In affirming the conviction, the Appeal Court said that Mrs. Mandela's contention that the four were taken because they were being sexually abused by a Methodist minister could not be dismissed as a possible motivation for kidnapping, though it did not justify it.
Moreover, it agreed with her view that the state did not prove that she was present for, or knew about, the subsequent beatings that led to the death of Stompie.
The court refused to overturn the convictions of two of Mrs. Mandela's co-defendants.