Wednesday 13 December 2017

First lady who holds heart of South Africa in her hands

Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel in 1997.
Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel in 1997.
Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

LONG before she met her famous husband, Graca Machel had already set foot on the path to fight for freedom and education for her people.

In recent days, the eyes of the world have been watching as the former First Lady of South Africa has been at the bedside of her 94-year-old husband Nelson Mandela.

So, too, it was in 1986, as Machel was weighed down with grief at the graveside of her former husband Samora Machel.

The first president of an independent Mozambique died after his plane crashed in mysterious circumstances.

Ms Machel may be the only woman to hold the unusual distinction of having been first lady to two separate presidents.

Yet, she has confidently proclaimed her list of credentials and worthy achievements in her own right, and not as those of a wife.

In public, she had been known to swiftly correct people, saying she was not "Samora's wife", instead stating: "I'm me".

Now a member of the Elders, a group of global leaders who work for peace, she also won the UN's Nansen medal for her work on the rights of children in wartime.

Born in 1945 in a rural town on the coast of Mozambique, her family was intent she should get an education. The then young Graca Simbine won a scholarship to high school in the capital, Maputo, before going on to win a place to study languages in Lisbon.

It was in Maputo that the first seeds were sown on her path to African freedom fighter, as she queried why she was the only black African in a class of white people.

Then, after her time in Portugal, she joined the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo), the revolutionary movement who overthrew the Portuguese colonial rule.

It was there she went on to train as a guerrilla fighter, and also encountered their leader, Samora Machel, and went on to marry him in 1975, just after Mozambique became independent.

This placed her on the path to campaign for the rights of women and children, as at just 29 she became the only female in the cabinet and was appointed minister for education.

In a country where more than nine out of 10 people were illiterate, she faced an uphill battle.

"Woman still face this today. Women will always have to prove themselves more than anyone else to be accepted as competent. That's the way the game goes.

"Nobody will tell you exactly that they resist you, but you know, you feel it, you sense it. So it puts a lot of pressure on you," she said in a 'Children's Express' interview.

She had begun to improve school attendance and literacy when the country was plunged once again into civil war with the emergency of a counter-revolutionary movement, Renamo.

Even in the midst of the turmoil, she remained outspoken as she rebuked her husband publicly at a women's conference in 1984 for interfering in women's business.

She wrote to Winnie Mandela, and both Winnie and Nelson Mandela wrote to her from behind bars as she blamed Renamo for his death.


Machel, a lawyer, was sometimes likened to the Jackie Kennedy of Mozambique as she was left to care for the two children she had with Samora and six stepchildren.

It was five years before she staged a return to public life, and she set up a foundation to help women and children in poverty in Mozambique.

She met Mandela after he took over as godfather to her children in the footsteps of a late activist.

Mandela's marriage to his second wife, Winnie, began to break up shortly after he was released from prison in February 1990. They were later involved in a public divorce.

In 1995, reports of a romance blossoming between Machel and Mandela began to emerge.

They were spotted together on trips to Paris and Zimbabwe and, regardless of a 27-year age gap, got married in 1998 on the day he celebrated his 80th birthday.

"As with Machel, Nelson and I were together some time before love came. It wasn't love at first sight," she said.

In 1998, Mandela said he didn't regret any setbacks he had in life.

"I am blooming like a flower because of the love and support she has given me," he said on national television.

"I am in love with a remarkable lady. She has changed my life."

Irish Independent

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