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President Nelson Mandela reinstated his estranged wife, Winnie, as a deputy Cabinet minister today but it could be a technical move to fire her again.

Winnie Mandela was sacked from her post as deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology on March 27 after a series of controversies, including a conviction for kidnapping in 1991. She has contested her dismissal in court.The reinstatement appeared to be an attempt to fire Winnie Mandela in accordance with the constitution, which stipulates that all Cabinet members must be notified in advance of a sacking.

Following daylong talks between lawyers for the two Mandelas, the president's office issued a statement today explaining that Winnie Mandela's dismissal was "technically and procedurally invalid."

"The president, upon his return, will consider her position as deputy minister afresh," the statement said. Mandela is to return Thursday from a trip to the Persian Gulf states.

While reinstatement is seen as a temporary victory for Winnie Mandela, the president would now be permitted to fire her again without loose strings and avoid a long, costly legal battle.

Winnie Mandela filed court papers this week claiming that her dismissal was unfair and demanding to know the reasons for it.

Zulu nationalist leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose Inkatha Freedom Party is the biggest black rival to Mandela's African National Congress, contends he was not consulted.

Government sources cited earlier by the South African Press Association reported that Winnie Mandela's successor, Brigitte Mabandla, had been approached by the president's office to see if she would be prepared to "step down for a few hours."

Other criticisms of Mandela include her remarks chiding the government for its pace of social reform the past year, an unauthorized trip abroad and allegations by police that she took bribes.

Nelson Mandela gave no reasons for the dismissal, but his allies said Winnie Mandela had proven divisive in the national unity government.

Winnie Mandela, popular among poor blacks due to her militant calls for rapid redistribution of the wealth in post-apartheid South Africa, has refused to go quietly, however.

She has exhibited the same defiance toward Mandela's government as she did toward the white minority regime when he was imprisoned for 27 years, suffering constant harassment as a result.

The couple separated in 1992 for unspecified reasons.