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The blessing of Madiba

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July 18 was chosen for Mandela Day because it marks Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s birthday, but it’s also the day he chose to marry Graça Machel in 1998, and before he did so, he made sure that he got a Jewish blessing.

Fellow humanitarian icon, Ann Harris, the widow of the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, recalls the intimate gathering in which they shared an affirmation of the love he found in the later years of his life.

“Mr Mandela wasn’t a religious man, but he was a man of faith. About six months before 18 July, he met my late husband [about another matter]. As they shook hands, he said to him, ‘I want to have a word with you, chief rabbi, about a private matter, but I’ll phone you at home’,” recounts Harris.

A few days later, he phoned and asked the chief rabbi to diarise 18 July for what Mandela called “a special occasion” in which he wanted Harris to take part.

“So my husband looked at his diary, and he realised it was Shabbat. He said, ‘I’m so sorry, Madiba’, that was what he used to call him, ‘I won’t be able to come to you because it’s our sabbath. My president in heaven is stricter than you are!’ They both laughed,” says Ann. Mandela said he would work out a different arrangement to ensure they were “still going to be a part of all this”. “Of course, my husband didn’t know what all of this was, except that it was Mandela’s 80th birthday,” Harris said.

In the months that followed, media reports emerged suggesting nuptials between Mandela and Machel were imminent, although no official announcement was made.

“About a week before, he phoned my husband and said, “Remember that I told you about that day next week, my birthday – well, that’s the day I am going to marry Graça Machel. We want to have a multifaith ceremony in our house, so I wanted to ask you to take part.”

The chief rabbi again stated that while in any other circumstances he would love to partake, it was Shabbat that 18 July. However, Mandela was one step ahead, saying to him, “I told you that I will make a plan, and I have”.

He then proposed that since Shabbat would begin around 17:00 that Friday, the chief rabbi and Mrs Harris come to his house an hour before, even adding that if they went to Great Park Shul, which was nearby, they would have to leave only a few minutes before in order to get to the service on time.

The entire meeting was to be secret, and the awaiting hordes of media outside Mandela’s Houghton home were simply told that Eastern European diplomats were paying him a visit – an excuse that the Harrises found amusing, considering that, at the very least, the chief rabbi’s appearance, donning a kippah and being extensively bearded, was clearly that of an Orthodox Jew.

Inside Mandela’s home they met Mandela and Machel in the living room. He was wearing one of his famous colourful shirts and Machel a yellow silk suit, “looking beautiful”.

The Harrises had brought a wedding gift, and the couples chatted and had refreshments together at first. “Then, Mandela said that he understood that with a multifaith wedding, the [religious leader] wouldn’t be able to do exactly what they did when they married people in their own faith, but that he wanted my husband’s blessing.”

Harris, Machel, and Mandela went and stood by the window overlooking the garden. “My husband said, ‘I want you to imagine you are standing under a canopy because that’s what we do. The canopy is an example of what your home will be together.’”

The couple listened intently as Harris explained some ideas around Jewish marital duties. “He said, ‘All I can do is wish you the very best’, and then he blessed them. If you want to know what I was doing, well, I was sitting in the corner crying. I never stopped crying because it was so moving to watch.”

It was just such intimate moments that elevated the extraordinary nature of Mandela. Not only was he an iconic statesman, a fierce revolutionary, and at the helm of some of the most extraordinary political and social change that the world has seen in modern times, he also showed humanitarianism in small, everyday gestures, often infused with wit.

For example, recalls Harris, he always phoned the chief rabbi to wish him well ahead of religious holidays. However, one Rosh Hashanah, he phoned when it was already Rosh Hashanah morning. The Harris’s housekeeper was quite indignant that someone would call when she answered the house phone while they were already at shul.

As Harris recounts, when their housekeeper answered, “The voice on the phone said, ‘Can I speak to Chief Rabbi Harris?’ ‘No,’ she said. She was quite sharp when she didn’t know who it was, and he said, ‘Is Mrs Harris there?’ ‘No, no,’ she said, ‘It’s their new year, and they’ve already gone to synagogue – and anyway, even if they were here, they wouldn’t speak on the phone today.

“So, he said, ‘Will you please tell them that I phoned only to wish them a happy new year?’ So, she asked, ‘Well, who are you?’ and he replied, ‘I’m Nelson Mandela’, and then he said to her, ‘and who are you?’”

The two went on to have a long conversation, discussing their backgrounds and how they came from neighbouring villages. At the end, “she was absolutely overwhelmed, and turned from being quite cross with somebody who dared to ring up on Rosh Hashanah to delight that she was the one who spoke to him”.

Even Tony Leon, who as then-leader of the then-Democratic Party was a political rival, was struck by the wit and warmth with which Mandela interacted with him on numerous occasions.

“Toward the end of 1998, and ahead of the 1999 elections, political temperatures were rising here as Mandela entered the last lap of his presidency. There were many things going wrong, and as leader of an opposition party, I unhesitatingly pointed to some of them. Mandela got very irritated at some point, and referred to my party (then consisting of just seven MPs) as ‘a Mickey Mouse organisation’.

“I responded the next day in the press in the same Disneyesque rhetoric, saying, “If I head a Mickey Mouse party, Mandela then heads a Goofy government.” The rhetoric went unanswered until early December.

At that time, Leon was in Milpark Hospital about to undergo a gruelling coronary bypass operation.

Early in the evening before the surgery, “there was a knock on the door of my hospital room, and a world-famous voice announced, ‘Hullo Mickey Mouse, it’s Goofy. Can I come in and say hullo?’ It was a beaming Mandela who entered the room and we exchanged pleasantries. The operation was, indeed, a total success.”

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