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Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie on their wedding day in May, 1958.

Reuters

For much of the day, Winnie Mandela looked nervous and distressed. President Nelson Mandela appeared weary and, for once, older than his 77 years.

Both showed visible signs of unease when a judge finally abolished their 38-year marriage yesterday and ordered Mrs. Mandela to pay court costs.

Another chapter in the bitter separation of South Africa's most famous couple ended after two days of bizarre and dramatic courtroom antics and emotional testimony from the South African President about subjects ranging from adultery to loneliness.

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As the case neared its conclusion, Mrs. Mandela's two lawyers resigned after attempting to gain more time for their client to prepare her opposition to the divorce.

One lawyer rose and left the room. The other slumped in his chair and said only: "My instructions are withdrawn."

Mrs. Mandela stood up and unsuccessfully pleaded five times with Judge Frikkie Eloff to "have mercy" and postpone the case for several weeks. She was not prepared to testify "without preparing properly.

"I am not an attorney. I am only an ordinary person," she said. "I am not prepared to go further."

The judge eventually asked her to sit down.

Earlier, Mrs. Mandela's lawyers had requested a temporary adjournment of the case in order to bring further witnesses who would provide "important" testimony. One of these potential witnesses was a white policeman who has told newspapers that he intentionally tried to muddy Mrs. Mandela's reputation while employed by the apartheid government's security forces in the early 1990s.

Mrs. Mandela has always contended publicly that she was not ready to divorce her husband. But since the two separated four years ago, Mr. Mandela says, he has been equally determined to end the relationship.

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On Monday, the President testified that since his release from a 27– year imprisonment at the hands of the former apartheid government, the couple have "never once" spent time together in a bedroom while he was awake.

His lawyer also showed the court a copy of a letter which, he said, proves that Mrs. Mandela had an adulterous relationship with a junior member of the African National Congress, the party her husband leads.

Mr. Mandela began yesterday's session by saying: "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. . . . I am not keen to wash our dirty linen in public."

He further accused his estranged wife of hatching a "plot" to drag out the divorce proceedings with her suggestion that the two accept marriage mediation from Kaiser Matanzima, a traditional chief who was a notorious dictator in one of apartheid's former racially segregated homelands.

"I will never accept any mediation and if (Mr. Matanzima) came here, I would not talk to him about this matter," he said.

During cross-examination, defence lawyer Ismail Semenya asked Mr. Mandela to recall his wife's suffering during their marriage: arrests, internal exile and hardship trying to support their two daughters.

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The President agreed that his wife endured much, but he said her ordeal was not uncommon. "There were many women in this country who suffered far more than she did," he said.

Mrs. Mandela, 60, was always a tireless campaigner for her husband's release during his imprisonment, but since his release she has been involved in a steady stream of political controversies.

In 1991, she was convicted of kidnapping and assault in the violent death of James Stompo (Stompie) Moeketsi Seipei, a 14-year old member of her own Mandela Football Club. At the time, state prosecutors claimed that Mrs. Mandela had believed the boy was a state spy.

The assault conviction was later overturned, and she was fined instead of being sentenced to jail.

Mrs. Mandela bounced back. Although the couple were still separated, she was appointed deputy minister of arts, culture and technology by her husband after his ANC won South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994.

Within a year, however, she was fired from that position, rehired and fired again – after she took a trip abroad against the explicit orders of her husband. She remains a member of Parliament.

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Mrs. Mandela has been variously accused, but never convicted, of smuggling diamonds from Angola in a Lear jet and defrauding the government of millions of dollars.

Last year, police raided her house while she was abroad and confiscated boxes of documents. They later apologized and returned the papers.

Now that the Mandelas are officially divorced, attention has turned to the President's estate, estimated by some to be worth 40 million rand ($15-million). Mrs. Mandela's lawyers have said that, if divorced, she deserves half.

That issue is expected to be raised as the case continues today.

Mr. Mandela contended yesterday that his wife had profited from awards and international support given to him. In the past, Mrs. Mandela herself has acknowledged being given a luxurious Cape Town mansion by a woman named Hazel Crane – not a public figure – who showed up at the trial yesterday wearing four large diamond-studded bracelets.

Mr. Mandela said in court papers that Mrs. Mandela is a spendthrift who buys makeup and clothes she cannot afford and and gives parties that she cannot afford.

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Mrs. Mandela owns a spacious mansion in the former blacks-only township of Soweto but there has been speculation that she now has money problems.

While the divorce has attracted international attention, many South Africans seem unmoved by the controversy. About 100 shack dwellers who sported Mandela banners and sang ANC protest songs outside Johannesburg's Rand Supreme Court said they were not interested in the marital battle.

Their major concerns lay in the fact that the government has said it will evict them from their illegal shelters outside the Johannesburg township of Tembisa.

"The baby must not cry, even if they are shooting at us; we must fight for our rights," they sang in Zulu.

Jacob Mncube, a leader of the group, said he hoped the two political leaders will quickly resolve their personal problems and continue with the business of running South Africa.

"Our President and his wife are important to us," Mr. Mncube said. "I hope that we are important to them."

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The trial continues today, with Mrs. Mandela or a legal representative expected to provide reasons why she should be granted one-half of Mr. Mandela's estate.

With reports from Reuters and Associated Press.

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