As the world waits for Mandela to make his final rendezvous with history it is becoming clear that his wife who has been at his bedside throughout his illness, and now keeps vigil there, too will take her place in history as a huge figure in the fight against poverty, illiteracy and injustice.
In 1986, Graça Machel was tragically widowed when the Russian Tupolev jet carrying her husband, Samora Machel, the first president of independent Mozambique, ploughed into a remote hillside just inside the South African border. The apartheid regime denied involvement, but suspicions of a political assassination linger. As the nation rallied in grief, Graça, a young mother, was dubbed Mozambique’s Jackie Kennedy. It’s not an implausible comparison. She has the same easy, cosmopolitan self-confidence, natural presence, and command of many languages.
At that time Graça Machel replied to Mandela’s condolences from Robben Island: “From within your vast prison, you brought a ray of light in my hour of darkness.” Solace was fleeting. For five years, Machel wore black. Finally, in 1991, prompted by her 12-year-old son, Machel started anew, launching a foundation to address poverty.
She was born Graça Simbine on 17 October 1945 on the coast of Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony. Her family were peasants. Her father, who was semi-literate, provided for the family by oscillating between the South African mines and farming, and would become a Methodist minister. When he died, weeks before Graça was born, family legend says that he made his wife promise that their unborn child would have proper schooling. Machel’s mother kept her word. “We were a poor family,” Graça has said, “but I had the best education.”
When young Graça Simbine got a scholarship to high school in the capital, Maputo, she was the only black African in a class of 40 whites. Her education as an African radical began. “Why is it,” she said to herself, “that I’m made to feel strange in my own country? They’re the foreigners, not me. Something is wrong here.” Graça remains formidably committed to asking awkward questions about the status quo, and following her own agenda.
In the beginning, like Mandela, she was an African freedom fighter with a mission to liberate, and educate, her people. After a spell in Portugal, Graça Simbine joined Frelimo (the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) as a courier, was trained as a guerrilla fighter (she can still strip an assault rifle) and met the movement’s charismatic leader, Samora Machel. The couple became lovers during the revolutionary war, and married in August 1975, two months after Mozambique gained independence.
It was said that the union was as much a political partnership as a romance. When her husband became president, his new wife became minister of culture and education. Mozambique had one of the highest illiteracy rates in Africa. Within two years, she had boosted school attendance and lowered illiteracy. Any euphoria was short lived: A CIA-backed counter-revolutionary movement (Renamo) plunged the new nation into civil war, causing chaos and wrecking the economy. Then – just as peace was being established – Samora Machel was killed in that mysterious plane crash. Graça was devastated.
She has extraordinary gifts of leadership and imagination. In 1995, she won the UN’s Nansen medal for her work on children’s rights in refugee camps. She has many weighty qualifications including a law degree – combined with an impressive slate of global achievements in women’s rights and humanitarian issues.
When, in 1996, she was urged to run for secretary general of the UN (a job that went to Kofi Annan), she declined with the strategic savvy characteristic of an ex-freedom fighter. “There is no political will,” she said of the UN. “So what would I do there?”
Graça met Mandela after his release from prison in 1990, at a very low point in the life of the ANC leader. “We were both very, very lonely,” she said. “We both wanted someone you could talk to, someone who’d understand.” His wife, Winnie, had refused him any marital relationship. In private, Mandela was broken. When Graça finally married Madiba on his 80th birthday (he is 27 years her senior), she said: “It took a very special person to change my mind.” She remained devoted to Mozambique. They were living in separate cities, an hour’s flight apart, and the president was telephoning twice a day.
It is a belated love match between two people who occupy a quite extraordinary place in contemporary Africa. Mandela has been the first to acknowledge Graça Machel’s role in the autumn of his life. “She is the boss,” he said in 2007. “When I am alone, I am weak.” For her part, Machel bats away any sentimental idealisation of her man. “People may say my husband is a saint,” she told one English newspaper, “but … to me, he is just a human being who is simple and gentle. I wasn’t prepared for Madiba coming into my life, but now we make sure we spend time with each other because we were so lonely before. You only live once.”
Samora Machel’s story is now part of African liberation folklore and Nelson Mandela is a figure for the ages. Graça Machel is close to the equal of her two husbands. Shy of publicity, she once said: “It’s not two leaders who fell in love with me, but two real people. I feel privileged that I have shared my life with two such exceptional men.”
Graça Machel knows what it means to be unique. She is the only woman to have been first lady to two separate presidents. Not since Eleanor of Aquitaine became first the queen of France, then queen of England, married to Henry II, has one woman occupied such a position. Her love story has a Shakespearean dimension. As Mandela’s widow she will become an icon of South African sorrow, and an impressive mother-figure to a nation in mourning. Like her beloved Madiba, Graça Machel now stands in the antechamber of history, with yet another extraordinary future role almost the only sensible prediction.