President Nelson Mandela got the birthday wish of his dreams Saturday, upstaging his own 80th bash by quietly taking the hand of Graca Machel of neighboring Mozambique in marriage.
“They exchanged rings and kissed, and the president said this was the first time he was kissing her,” said Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, who confirmed what had become South Africa’s worst-kept secret. “I think they just decided it would be a good thing to do on his birthday.”
The ceremony took place at the couple’s new, private residence in Houghton, an exclusive neighborhood in Johannesburg.
Scores of well-wishers gathered outside the towering white-stucco walls and yet-to-be planted front gardens, hoping to catch a view of the newlyweds.
“I am so very happy for them,” said Stanley Mawie, a gardener. “I just wish he could have two or three wives. He deserves all the happiness he can get.”
The wedding and its aftermath were a strictly private affair, with no media coverage permitted and the president’s office even denying nuptials were in the making until late afternoon. Reporters were then summoned to Pretoria for an announcement “of national importance.”
The couple exchanged diamond-studded gold rings, which Mandela carried in his pocket without the services of a best man, and spoke their vows in the presence of Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim religious leaders.
A civil ceremony was performed by the chief magistrate of Johannesburg. According to one report, Mandela also followed the African tradition of paying a marriage lobola of 60 cows to Machel’s family.
“It was a very happy occasion,” said Mbeki, who signed the marriage register as a witness. “People kept heckling.”
The new first couple, who met in 1990 shortly after Mandela was released from prison, have been publicly seeing each other for about two years.
But whenever asked about marriage, Machel, 52, a lawyer and the widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel, said she feared for her ongoing charitable work in Mozambique and for the memory of her late husband, who was killed in 1986 in a suspicious plane crash.
“He puts pressure on me. But it’s a private matter, and when we decide, we’ll talk about it,” she said last year in an interview with a South African women’s magazine.
Mandela has made no secret of his intentions ever since the couple went public with their relationship after his divorce from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 1996.
Although Machel continues to live and work in Mozambique, she spends several months a year with Mandela in South Africa. Even as a live-in companion, Mandela insisted that Machel be accorded the privileges and protocol of the first lady.
“I don’t regret the . . . setbacks I’ve had because, late in my life, I am blooming like a flower because of the love and support she has given me,” he said on national television earlier this year. “I am in love with a remarkable lady. She has changed my life.”
No one is saying what finally changed Machel’s mind. However, it is clear that she intends to maintain her independence and close ties to Mozambique despite her new status as wife to one of the world’s most popular and in-demand statesmen.
Mbeki said Machel, who once served as Mozambique’s minister of education and culture, will not take Mandela’s name nor will she give up her home.
Mandela is a living legend in South Africa, and Machel has often been described as the Jackie Kennedy of Mozambique, having been left to raise two young children after the death of her husband, who was the country’s first president and a hero of the liberation movement against colonial Portugal.
But for all their individual popularity, it is uncertain how well their formal union will go down in either country beyond the official pronouncements of congratulations.
Mozambicans, like most southern Africans, view South Africa as the region’s bossy and self-important big brother.
Many believe that Samora Machel was killed by the former apartheid government, and they are reluctant to lose his widow to the same country, albeit a drastically changed one. Such sentiments, it is believed, weighed heavily on Machel’s indecision about the wedding.
Mandela, meanwhile, is embarking on his third marriage, but many South Africans have not entirely let go of his second.
Mandela and Winnie Madikizela married in 1958, shortly after his first union fell apart, and they were one of the world’s most famous couples throughout his 27 years in prison.
They have been separated for six years and divorced for two, but many ordinary South Africans would have liked nothing more than to see them reconcile.
Outside the president’s Houghton residence Saturday, some of those singing songs of praise to the new first couple also confided that they wished the bride were Madikizela-Mandela.
“She helped him through the struggle and stood by him when he was in jail,” said William Phoshoko, a warehouse worker from Pretoria. “She’s the one who should be in there right now.”
In a possible sign of the strain, neither of the president’s two daughters from his marriage with Madikizela-Mandela attended the wedding, even though they joined his private birthday party earlier in the day in Pretoria.
“I like Mrs. Machel, but I like Winnie too,” said Margaret, a Houghton housekeeper who has met Mandela and Machel on the street. “I just wish we could have both.”