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Last Updated: Friday, 25 April, 2003, 22:46 GMT 23:46 UK
Why people still love Winnie

By Alastair Leithead
BBC correspondent in Pretoria

With a raised fist, the so-called Mother of the Nation gave her supporters a defiant salute.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela outside the court
Winnie Mandela is still hugely popular
She may be a convicted fraudster with a prison sentence looming, but she is Winnie and the people still love her.

Hundreds gathered outside the Pretoria court, chanting songs of support, but there was also a huge police presence - dozens of officers in riot gear and a water cannon standing by.

The Congress of South African Students had told its members to attend and had warned there would be trouble if Winnie was jailed, but in the end there was no more than a lot of jostling as people tried to get close to their heroine.

Inside the packed courtroom Mrs Madikizela-Mandela had listened carefully to the magistrate Peet Johnson, as he explained the various factors he had balanced out before coming to a decision, such as the interests of society and the legal basis of mercy.

Prison sentence

Then there was silence in court one as he announced that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the icon of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, would receive a five-year sentence with one year suspended.

But it was not quite that simple - a short imprisonment with community service was the best option, and it became clear she would serve only a sixth of that sentence, a minimum of eight months in prison.

The chants from the crowds in the street could be clearly heard from the court high up on the top floor, and the reaction was disappointment.

Supporters of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
There were demonstrations outside the court
There were claims this was a racist court with its white magistrate and white prosecutor, that she had been framed or that she did not deserve to be jailed.

Winnie immediately lodged her appeal and was released on bail.

Then there was the question of her political career.

Under the South African constitution, a prison sentence of more than six months requires the guilty party to stand down, and she did just that.

In a statement handed out by her lawyer, she said she was resigning as an MP and withdrawing from her various positions within the African National Congress - her presidency of the Womens' League and her place on the ANC National Executive.

Anti-apartheid leader

But whatever Winnie Madikizela-Mandela does, the people still support her.

The long years she spent leading the anti-apartheid movement as her husband Nelson Mandela languished on Robben Island have been etched on the minds of black South Africans.

And there is no doubt she suffered. The torture, the banishment, the isolation under house arrest, the imprisonment - all took its toll and people respect her for what she did and what she went through.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela leaves court in Pretoria
Many South Africans remain loyal to Winnie
She is no stranger to courtrooms, as in 1991 she was convicted of kidnapping a 14-year-old boy who was later killed by her bodyguards and there have been countless scandals, many of them around her financial affairs.

Despite it all, the people never forget the years in the wilderness together.

So far she has avoided prison in the new South Africa, but even with an appeal pending it seems likely she will spend time behind bars.

It may be the end of her political career for now and it is a blow to a firebrand figure, but it is certainly not the last the country has heard of Winnie.

The BBC's Alastair Leithead
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