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Jail cloud on Winnie

Pretoria, April 24 (Reuters): A South African court today convicted Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and her broker on dozens of counts of fraud and theft in a move that could send the anti-apartheid heroine and member of parliament to jail.

It was the latest blow for a political maverick dubbed “the Mother of the Nation” for her fight against apartheid during former husband Nelson Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment.

“The state’s evidence is overwhelming,” magistrate Peet Johnson told a Pretoria court. Madikizela-Madela was found guilty on 43 counts of fraud and 25 of theft. Her co-accused, broker Addy Moolman, was convicted on 58 counts of fraud and 25 of theft. They were permitted to remain free on bail and were expected to be sentenced tomorrow. Madikizela-Mandela, 66, showed no reaction when the verdicts were announced in a courtroom packed with media, family members and supporters of the two accused.

But dozens of youths who consider her a champion of the downtrodden surged through the courthouse after the verdict shouting “Viva Winnie!” and singing anti-apartheid anthems. She and Moolman both pleaded not guilty to 85 charges of fraud and theft, which each carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. State prosecutors said letters bearing Madikizela-Mandela’s signature were used to secure loans for bogus employees of the Women’s League of the ruling African National Congress, which she heads.

Lawyers of Madikizela-Mandela accused Moolman, bank staff and Women’s League employees of lying about her role in the scheme. They argued she was duped into participating in a fraud she knew nothing about.

But Johnson said a suggestion that Madikizela-Mandela did not know of the scheme was “completely improbable”.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela issued a statement saying he would await final conclusion in the case, including any possible appeal, before commenting. The couple were divorced in 1996.

The ANC said it “respected and accepted” the verdict, but would also reserve further comment until the case was concluded. Madikizela-Mandela had no comment after the verdict, and her lawyer, Ismael Semenya, declined to say whether he planned to appeal.

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