The powerful story of the anti-apartheid priest Duchess Meghan hugged in Cape Town

By Zach Harper

Duchess Meghan and Prince Harry drew plenty of attention when they stepped out to the Auwal Mosque in Cape Town’s Bo Kaap district on Sept. 24. The Duchess of Sussex arrived wearing a headscarf, and she and her husband met with religious leaders during the visit of the mosque, which is South Africa’s oldest, having been built in 1794.

Before heading into the building, Meghan and Harry were greeted by Auwal Mosque’s Imam, Sheik I smail Londt, Muslim community leader Mohamed Groenwald and Anglican leader Father Michael Lapsley. Meghan was seen hugging Michael, and there’s a very powerful reason.

Meghan hugging Michael outside the Auwal Mosque on Sept. 24 Photo: © Chris Jackson - Pool/Getty Images

Nearly 30 years ago, New Zealand-born Michael was living in Zimbabwe when he received a package in the mail that changed his life and his body forever. The Anglican priest had been expelled from South Africa to Lesotho because of his anti-apartheid work.

While he had lived in South Africa, he became chaplain at both of Durban’s white and black universities. In June 1976, the Soweto uprising, a series of protests and demonstrations against the apartheid regime, broke out. It was met with a brutal response from police and security forces. Michael responded by joining the African National Congress. This is now South Africa’s governing political party, and was then a grassroots movement that had the goal of ending apartheid and uniting all South Africans. He became the organization’s chaplain in exile.

In 1990, just months after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, Michael received what he thought were two religious magazines in the mail. The package was actually a letter bomb. It exploded, taking both his hands and the sight in one of his eyes.

Harry and Meghan were thrilled to meet Michael and the feeling was mutual. Photo: © Karwai Tang/WireImage

When Meghan and Harry shook hands with Ismail and Mohamed outside Auwal Mosque, Michael decided to greet Meghan in a different way.

“Shaking hands is obviously not natural for me. So I went to hug her,” he told The Times.

Michael with Truth and Reconciliation Commission participants including Archbishop Desmond Tutu (seated) at the final TRC church service in 2003. Photo: © Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive/Getty Images

Two years after receiving the letter bomb, Michael had returned to South Africa after apartheid’s dismantling. In 1993, he became the chaplain of the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture in Cape Town and was part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This was a body that assembled beginning in 1996, and held hearings into human rights violations as part of South Africa’s move to democracy.

PHOTOS: The best pictures from Duchess Meghan and Prince Harry’s royal tour of southern Africa

Michael later went on to found the Institute for Healing of Memories, which helps South Africans dealing with trauma from the apartheid era. He continues to speak out for and help torture victims worldwide.

“Michael’s life represents a compelling metaphor: We read about a foreigner who came to our country and was transformed by what he saw of the injustices of apartheid,” Nelson Mandela said of him in 1996. “His life is part of the tapestry of many long journeys and struggles of our people.”

Meghan and Harry must have been so incredibly honoured to have met him.

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