JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Describing himself as "the loneliest man" during the years he spent with his wife, Winnie, after leaving prison, Nelson Mandela told a court yesterday, "I'm determined to get rid of this marriage. It exists only on paper."
They were the harshest words he has spoken publicly about the woman with whom he shared what seemed like a vibrant romance steeped in a cause.
Testifying on the opening day of his divorce suit, the 77-year-old South African president spent an hour presenting a devastating picture of the last years of his 38-year marriage to a woman who was often heroically portrayed as standing loyally by her husband during his 27 years in prison.
"Ever since I came back from jail, not once has the defendant ever entered the bedroom while I was awake," Mr. Mandela said. "I said to her that a man and his wife usually discuss the most intimate and personal problems in the bedroom
"I told her that there were so many issues, many of them sensitive, that I would like to discuss with you, but she always refused."
During Mr. Mandela's years in prison, Mrs. Mandela became one of the chief public leaders of the anti-apartheid movement despite constant attempts by South African authorities to silence her. She consistently championed the cause of the man who would become the most famous prisoner in the world and later the symbol of hope when he became the country's first black president.
When Mr. Mandela left prison in 1990, he walked hand in hand with Mrs. Mandela through the waiting crowds. He stood by her during her subsequent trial in the murder of a Soweto teen-ager by a gang of her bodyguards.
Even when he announced their separation in 1992, Mr. Mandela was often portrayed as still quite in love with his wife, forced to leave her for political reasons as she was gaining a reputation as an undisciplined leader of the radical wing of the African National Congress.
But yesterday, he said that was all an act, that he was prepared to divorce her soon after his release from prison but did not want to appear to abandon her during her murder trial.
"I supported her in the case," he said. "I put aside everything to pledge solidarity with my wife."
As for his kind words for her when he announced their separation "My love for her remains undiminished," he said at the time he explained yesterday: "This was my wife with whom I had in the past shared some of the happiest moments in our lives. I wanted to make the parting as painless as possible."
In his testimony, he said it was when he realized that allegations of adultery were true that he decided the marriage was irretrievably broken. The alleged affair, which was publicized in a Johannesburg newspaper, was with Dali Mpofu, who worked with Mrs. Mandela in the ANC welfare office.
Mr. Mandela said yesterday that after the newspaper published a purported love letter from Mrs. Mandela to Mr. Mpofu in 1992, he ordered her not to travel with her alleged lover but that they subsequently took two trips to the United States together.
Mr. Mandela was shown a copy of the letter by his lawyer Wim Trengove and confirmed that it was written by his wife.
"I know her handwriting very well, especially since when I was in prison I received continuous letters from her," he said. "If there was ever any hope of reconciliation, [the letter] confirmed my decision never to reconcile with the defendant."
The beginning of the trial was delayed when Mrs. Mandela, 60, arrived 15 minutes late for its 10 a.m. start. Mr. Mandela had arrived 15 minutes early.
Throughout the morning, as her lawyers argued for a postponement, the Mandelas sat a few feet from one another, separated by their attorneys, but never made eye contact.
Mrs. Mandela's lawyers said that the case should be delayed because the couple had not sought a reconciliation based on counseling from the traditional leaders of their segment of Xhosa tribe.
In his testimony, Mr. Mandela rejected the authority of any traditional leader over his marriage. "If the entire universe persuaded me to reconcile with the defendant, I would not," he said.
Mrs. Mandela's attorneys also argued that they had not received sufficient information about Mr. Mandela's assets since the case was filed 18 months ago. Newspaper reports over the weekend said that she was seeking half of his $15 million fortune, much of which is pledged to charity. Mrs. Mandela has had several highly publicized scrapes with creditors in the past year.
Judge Frikkie Eloff, who will decide the case, agreed to postpone any consideration of finances for two days but to go ahead with testimony in the divorce action. Mr. Mandela will be cross-examined today.
The case, involving probably the two most famous people in South Africa, had all the trappings of a celebrity trial. Crowds waited outside the downtown Johannesburg courthouse for a glimpse of the contestants. Mr. Mandela's hour of testimony was given in packed, hushed courtroom.
Still, there was no hint of mania. With anything involving Mr. Mandela, there is always a semblance of decorum, such is the respect he commands in his country. He told the court that he was testifying reluctantly, that he had hoped to settle the matter outside of court but that Mrs. Mandela rejected overtures from his emissaries.
It was at the end of his time on the stand that he said, almost as a coda to his testimony, "I was the loneliest man during the period that I stayed with her."
After leaving the stand, he shook hands with Mrs. Mandela and her attorneys before leaving the courtroom.
Pub Date: 3/19/96