By People Staff
April 01, 1996 12:00 PM

WHAT HAD APPEARED TO OUTSIDERS to be among the century’s most romantic marriages began at a South African bus stop in 1958. “I cannot say for certain if there is such a thing as love at first sight,” wrote South African president Nelson Mandela in his 1994 autobiography. “But I do know that the moment I first glimpsed Winnie Nomzamo, I knew that I wanted to have her as my wife.”

As a couple, the Mandelas survived racial persecution, political upheaval and 27 years of separation while Nelson was in prison, but last week a judge in Johannesburg pronounced their 38-year marriage officially over. According to Nelson, 77, who initiated the proceedings, Winnie, 61, simply no longer loved him. “Ever since I came back from prison, not once has the defendant ever entered our bedroom while I was awake,” he sorrowfully testified last week. “I was the loneliest man….”

They had been married only four years in 1962 when Nelson, an activist foe of racial apartheid, was arrested for treason. While raising their two daughters, Zenani, now 38, and Zindzi, 35, alone, Winnie fiercely defended her husband’s political legacy. She was repeatedly jailed, sent to live in the remote countryside and isolated from colleagues. When Nelson was released in 1990, his wife had become an anti-apartheid leader in her own right.

In recognition of her political clout, when Nelson was elected South Africa’s first black president in 1994, he awarded his wife a cabinet post. Privately, though, their marriage was foundering. The pair separated in 1992, shortly after Winnie was found guilty of kidnapping a young political activist who was brutally murdered by her bodyguards. (Her six-year sentence was reduced to a $4,200 fine.) The final blow came when a newspaper editor showed Nelson a love letter which, the president explained in court last week, convinced him of Winnie’s adulterous affair with lawyer Dali Mpofu, who is 28 years her junior.

Winnie has denied the romance but declined to do so in court. The judge rejected her request for half of Nelson’s savings to help cover her monthly expenses of $28,000. “If the entire universe persuaded me to reconcile with the defendant, I would not,” declared Nelson. “I’m determined to get rid of the marriage.”