Rafiki, Meghan Markle and Nelson Mandela. The main characters of the latest scandal splashed across British tabloids are so unlikely that one has to take a second look to be sure that it’s real news. It is. The controversy stems from the extensive interview the Duchess of Sussex, 41, gave in The Cut magazine. Published on Monday, August 29, Markle claimed in the interview that, during the London premiere of the 2019 remake of the Disney classic, a cast member approached her to compare her May 2018 wedding to Britain’s Prince Harry with South African politician Nelson Mandela’s 1990 release from prison, which marked the end of apartheid. “I just need you to know: When you married into this family, we rejoiced in the streets the same [as] we did when Mandela was freed from prison,” Markle says he told her. The anecdote, buried in a long and very positive profile, attracted the British media’s attention. The press rushed to ask the film’s actors about the statement. What they found caused an uproar.
John Kani is a South African actor and director who’s well known for playing T’Chaka in Captain America and Black Panther. He also appeared in The Lion King, where he lent his voice to the popular monkey Rafiki. Kani disputed Markle’s story. “I have never met Meghan Markle. This seems like something of a faux pas by her. I have never met the Duchess at all. I am the only South African member of the cast and I did not attend the premiere in London,” he told the British newspaper MailOnline. The only other South African known to have participated in the film is the composer Lebo M., who co-wrote the animated film’s original score along with Hans Zimmer, slightly leaving the door open for Markle’s anecdote to be true. Even so, the duchess referred to someone from the “cast” in her anecdote.
An activist during the most difficult years of apartheid and Mandela’s personal friend, John Kani pointed out that the comparison is far-fetched and “disconcerting.” The South African politician’s release after 27 years in prison was a “historic moment,” he said, while Markle’s marriage to Prince Harry was “nothing special” in South Africa. The two events “can’t be compared,” he continued. “In my memory, nobody would have known when she got married... We had no South African link to the wedding or to her marrying Harry.”
After several months of keeping a low profile, Meghan Markle is now returning to public life. The cover story in The Cut magazine is part of a series of public appearances, such as her return to social media, which she announced in the interview, and the premiere of her podcast, Archetypes, in which she chats with different public figures like Serena Williams and Mariah Carey, in the two episodes that have been released so far. In addition, she starts a European tour next week to attend various charity events and has a Netflix documentary about the Invictus Games due to premiere. These projects are intended to help Markle establish her own agenda after she and her husband, Prince Harry, left the British royal family, which they accused of racism. Since then, the couple’s estrangement from the Windsor family has been abundantly clear.
But far from improving her much reviled image in England, The Cut cover story seems to have backfired. The comparison with Mandela has not only raised hackles in the United Kingdom but in South Africa as well. The country’s first Black president, who championed racial coexistence while fighting institutionalized racism, is an important symbol there that many people around the world want to coopt.
“Every day there are people who want to be Nelson Mandela, either comparing themselves to him or wanting to emulate him,” the politician’s grandson, Zwelivelile Mandla Mandela, said. “My advice to everyone is to live the life Nelson Mandela lived and support the causes he supported.” Mandla, who is also a member of the South African parliament, elaborated further in statements to the MailOnline. He added that his grandfather’s release from prison in 1990 “can never be compared to the celebration of someone’s wedding. Madiba’s celebration was based on overcoming 350 years of colonialism with 60 years of a brutal apartheid regime in South Africa. So it cannot be equated to as the same.”