Mandela, Longtime Companion Wed
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 19, 1998; Page A24
JOHANNESBURG, July 18President Nelson Mandela let South Africa's worst-kept secret out of the bag today when he married his longtime companion, former Mozambican first lady Graca Machel.
Mandela and Machel, who is 52, took their vows on Mandela's 80th birthday in a private, multidenominational ceremony at his presidential home in the affluent Johannesburg suburb of Houghton.
Before a small group of friends and senior politicians, Methodist Archbishop Mvume Dandala was assisted in the ceremony by Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Tutu had publicly pressured Mandela to wed Machel to set a moral example for the nation. During the ceremony, well-wishers from the surrounding community filled the usually quiet tree-lined street with traditional songs of praise.
The marriage follows a week of rampant speculation that a wedding would take place. Despite leaks about the pending nuptials, officials in Mandela's office repeatedly misled the media with emphatic denials. But this afternoon, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki ended the ruse when he left the Houghton home and held a news conference in Pretoria, 25 miles away, to announce publicly the marriage.
"President Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel got married this afternoon," he said. "They exchanged rings. When asked to kiss, they kissed, and the president said it was the first time he had kissed her."
Mandela, South Africa's first democratically elected president and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in steering the country's transition from white minority rule, will spend his political retirement and twilight years with the woman who has become a prominent fixture in his public and private life. He is to step down after just one term following next year's election, tentatively set for May. Last December, he handed over the reins of the ruling party, the African National Congress, to Mbeki, who now is predicted to succeed him also as president.
This marriage is Mandela's third and Machel's second. The two have been openly involved since shortly after his divorce from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 1996.
As the two most prominent figures of the anti-apartheid struggle, they had been married for 38 years. But for 27 of those years, Mandela was a political prisoner. Upon his release in 1990, their marriage hit rocky terrain and they separated in 1992.
During the historic 1994 election campaign, however, the Mandelas' iconic status was clearly on display as, separately, they carried the call of black freedom through electoral democracy. But the rift between them became final when, at their divorce proceedings, Mandela said in court that he had been the "loneliest man" during the difficult days of reunion with Madikizela-Mandela.
Machel is the widow of Mozambican president Samora Machel. A staunch ally of Mandela's ANC and thus a foe of South Africa's old apartheid government, Samora Machel died in a 1986 plane crash that remains under investigation here because of suspicions, then and now, that apartheid-era officials were responsible.
Because she is Mozambican, Graca Machel has not been universally accepted here as a suitable presidential companion.
Also, there remains for many here deep regret that the two famous Mandelas could not iron out their marital problems. But because Nelson Mandela is so widely revered in this socially conservative country, many felt his happiness was contingent on having a wife.
"I like Winnie because she waited a long time for him to come out" of prison, said Mary Kekana, 35, one of hundreds of Houghton residents who sang outside Mandela's home. "But if he is happy, it's all right."
Although 28 years Mandela's junior, Machel shares several attributes with him. Like him, she holds a law degree. And she is a revered public figure in Mozambique who, like him, has focused special attention on child development.
She also holds high credibility in southern Africa for being part of its many liberation struggles against colonialism. Mozambique won independence from Portugal in 1975, and Machel was education minister for 11 years until 1986.
Mandela and Machel, who will not change her name, have lived apart for much of their friendship during the past two years. They will continue a commuter relationship, Mbeki said, because of duties in their respective countries. She is an academic, attorney and advocate for children's rights.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company