Dignity of Mandela's wife eclipses family feud
Archbishop Tutu says disputes are 'almost like spitting in Madiba's face'
AS the family of Nelson Mandela tears itself apart, one woman is keeping her silence – and with it her dignity.
Graca Machel, 67, the third wife of the stricken former South African president, has kept vigil by his bedside at a hospital in Pretoria for the past month, saying almost nothing to the outside world.
Reports of her husband's condition vary wildly, with court papers suggesting that Mr Mandela is in a "permanent vegetative state" and that members of the family have been advised to switch off his life-support machine.
However, this has been denied by Jacob Zuma, the current president, who continues to insist that his predecessor's health is "critical but stable". He is urging South Africans to prepare to celebrate Mr Mandela's 95th birthday on July 18.
But even as the mound of floral tributes outside the hospital grows every day, Mandela family members have chosen to fight each other in court and in the media for the right to control his name, legacy and final resting place.
Tribal elders say they are upsetting the ancestors. Former allies in the African National Congress accuse them of undermining all that the great leader stood for.
"Please, please, please may we think not only of ourselves?" said Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Friday. Using the clan name for his fellow Nobel laureate, he said: "It is almost like spitting in Madiba's face."
In contrast, Archbishop Tutu said Graca Machel was "a strong woman of enormous stature. But graciousness is the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of her: gracious wife, gracious feminist, gracious human being.
"Gracious, but not to be trifled with or underestimated."
She has rarely been seen outside the hospital since her husband was admitted with a lung infection on June 8.
Indeed, she did not even feel able to leave his side to meet Barack Obama, the president of the United States, who was in town last week.
The 67-year-old Mozambican is a formidable political operator. She served as a minister in her own country for many years and was married to President Samora Machel before his death in a suspicious plane accident in 1986.
When she married Nelson Mandela in 1998, Graca Machel became the first woman to act as First Lady to two presidents.
So it may not have been coincidence that she chose to make a rare public appearance last Thursday, with a few words about charity and unity, just as the Mandela family row over graves was reaching a bizarre climax.
Mrs Machel took to the podium briefly at the launch of a sporting event for the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
"Although Madiba sometimes may be uncomfortable, very few times he is in pain, but he is fine," she said. "I think the best gift which he has given this nation again is the gift of unity."
Urging people to donate money to build a children's hospital, rather than buying flowers, she expressed thanks for the way rich and poor, young and old had united around her husband. "That's what he wanted," she said.
Even as she finished her short speech, Mr Mandela's eldest grandson was raging against the rest of the family as the grave row intensified.
Mandla Mandela faces criminal charges of illegally tampering with graves after he moved the bodies of three of his grandfather's children to his own village of Mvezo without seeking permission from the rest of the family.
Makaziwe Mandela, the eldest daughter, has fronted the court case against her nephew and has also fought a separate case to have former advisers of Mr Mandela removed from the boards of trusts that manage income from the sale of his paintings.
That fight is not about money, she says, but about the right of family members to control what is done in the Mandela name. However, the commercial use of that name could earn tens of millions of pounds after his death.
Meanwhile, Nelson Mandela's second wife Winnie has sought to position herself as the voice of the Mandelas, as she was during his long years in prison. She describes herself as "the senior member of this family" and Mr Mandela as "our husband", despite their divorce in 1996.
There is a fortune at stake for whoever controls the Mandela name, but Graca Machel needs no part of it.
She is a wealthy woman, with her own home and a stake in an investment company in Mozambique.
Born in rural Mozambique, she was the daughter of a farmer and miner. She escaped poverty through a Methodist school education, studying philosophy in Portugal and then a law degree.
She was as radical a revolutionary as Winnie Mandela in her youth, learning to strip a rifle in Frelimo, the Mozambican Liberation Front.
After independence in 1975, Graca became the country's first education minister and married Samora Machel, its new president. Among the letters of condolence that she received after his death was one from Nelson Mandela, who was still in jail. She wrote back: "From within your vast prison, you brought a ray of light in my hour of darkness."
The relationship became serious after his divorce. They were married on his 80th birthday. She was 52.
Lately, she has also begun to assert her political views.
In March she warned that South Africa was an "angry country" being brought to the brink of "something very dangerous" by increasing levels of violence.
Now the nation feels for her. There is growing respect for her, even as there is growing dismay at the way the Mandelas are behaving.
She has nothing to prove to anyone. Few of the Mandelas can say the same.