Africa's Leading Couple Ties the Knot - Privately
Wedding Saturday joined Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel, 'Africa's Jacqueline Kennedy.'
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — He is Africa's leading statesman, the first president of South Africa after apartheid. She is Africa's leading stateswoman and the widow of the first president of neighboring Mozambique. But Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel were two lonely hearts until official duties brought them together and love slowly blossomed.
On Saturday President Mandela and Ms. Machel were wed at a ceremony squeezed in between the national celebrations of Mandela's 80th birthday and kept private, with members of both families attending. Until the last minute, officials denied that the event would take place.
Mandela should have been the happiest man alive when he left prison in 1990. After 27 years he was free, arguably the world's most popular politician, and about to realize his dream of bringing democracy to South Africa.
But freedom sadly ended his cherished reverie of resuming domestic life with his second wife, Winnie. She had become the object of personal and legal notoriety. They separated in 1992. In their subsequent divorce trial, South Africa's beloved president stood ashen-faced as he declared, after his return home from jail, "I was the loneliest man during the period I stayed with her."
Graca Machel also knew about loneliness. President Samora Machel, her husband, died in mysterious circumstances in 1986. Ms. Machel, Mozambique's education minister, slowly pulled out of public life. She personified her nation's grief by wearing black for five years and became known as Africa's Jacqueline Kennedy.
"I had lost that flame, that something very enthusiastic inside me," she said in an interview recently.
But in 1991 she resumed public life. She took up the cause of refugees and national development in her war-torn country. She won the prestigious Nansen Medal from the United Nations for her efforts, declined invitations to run for the post of UN secretary-general, and began spending time with a very important neighbor.
"Nelson and I were some time together before love came," she told a Portuguese newspaper last year. "It wasn't love at first sight."
She and Mandela met in 1990 when he visited Mozambique, and again in 1992 when she accepted an honorary degree from the University of the Western Cape. In 1993, Mandela agreed to replace the deceased Oliver Tambo as godfather to the Machels's son, Malegani. "And so," she remembers, "we started to see each other more often."
For three years Machel publicly denied the relationship, insisting she wanted only to be known as Samora Machel's widow and keeper of his flame. Finally, in 1996 Mandela's office announced that Machel was the president's "official companion" and would accompany him on state visits.
"Madiba," as Mandela is known by his tribal name, is clearly smitten with Machel. As her name implies, she is graceful and gracious, tall with a formidable intellect. He had made no secret of his wish to marry her.
But, up to their wedding day, Machel insisted she would never remarry because she did not want to give up life in Mozambique. As they have done for five years, Mandela and Machel will commute between South Africa and Mozambique, where she runs her Community Development Foundation.
Of her relationship with two of Africa's greatest men, Machel says: "It's not two leaders who fell in love with me but two real people.... I can say I feel privileged that I have shared my life with two such exceptional men."