Winnie Mandela sought refuge with friends after black arsonists destroyed everything in the small house she once shared with her husband, jailed South African black leader Nelson Mandela.

"She is very distressed," lawyer Amichand Soman told Reuters late on Thursday. "She has gone to stay with friends and get over the shock."She postponed a close inspection of her fire-gutted home in the black township of Soweto.

A police spokesman said officers were investigating a charge of arson, but Soman said Mrs. Mandela had not yet made a complaint to police.

Police and neighbors said a gang of schoolchildren used gasoline to torch the small, four-roomed brick house in the Orlando West section of Johannesburg's Soweto township on Thursday morning.

Mrs. Mandela was out at the time and no one was injured in the attack.

The house, rented by African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela since about 1956, was gutted. Furniture, electronic equipment and clothes were roasted to ash.

Friends said they feared the blaze had destroyed a priceless collection of letters, photographs and mementos belonging to Mandela, who turned 70 last week in Cape Town's Pollsmoor Prison.

Mandela, who has been in jail for 26 years for plotting to overthrow white rule, heard about the fire from his own lawyer, Ismail Ayob.