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The apple of Madiba's eye

July 24, 1998

Who is . . . Graça Machel?

Debora Patta

It is entirely appropriate that Graça Machel did not agree to obey her new husband when they exchanged wedding vows last Saturday.

A thoroughly modern woman, she chose instead to love, honour and cherish Nelson Mandela - a commitment taken from a modern version of the Church of England's marriage ceremony.

The woman who has put the sparkle back in the president's eyes and a spring in his step is fiercely independent and will continue to uphold this independence even though she is now a wife once again.

You will not always see Machel at Mandela's side at official functions. South Africa's new first lady is determined to continue her work in Maputo, where she runs her own children's foundation. She will also continue in her role as an ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), and the couple will still maintain residences in both South Africa and Mozambique.

Prior to the marriage, Machel would visit Madiba on average about two weeks out of every month, while the president would often sneak down to Maputo for a weekend of prawns and sun. These arrangements will continue as if nothing has changed.

Machel's modern approach to life, love and career began long before she met Mandela. Born Graça Simbine, she is a university graduate who's conversant in four languages. She joined Frelimo's armed struggle for independence and was a freedom fighter in her own right.

She married Samora Machel a few months after Mozambican independence in 1975. She was the country's first education minister and held the post at the time of her husband's death. This talented and charismatic couple believed they could bring peace and economic growth to Mozambique throughout the years of destabilisation.

Then came the Mbuzini plane crash on October 19 1986, which killed her husband. It was an event that shattered the Machel household and changed Graça Machel forever. For well over a decade now it has defined who she is and what she wants out of life.

Machel is convinced the crash was no accident and has dedicated her life to tracking down her husband's killers. Even if justice is not seen in her lifetime, she says, her children have vowed to carry on the hunt.

For the first year after the plane crash, Machel was too traumatised to fly anywhere. The Tupolev 134 crashed shortly after the pilot instructed his passengers to fasten their seatbelts. And even today, every time the "fasten seatbelt" sign lights up and a plane begins the descent for landing, she is haunted by visions of what her husband's last moments alive must have been like.

The crash is not a subject she talks about easily, and she has often said she made the decision a long time ago that life must go on.

I first met Machel at Mandela's Houghton residence. The meeting was friendly but a little stiff - the presidential residence does not lend itself to informality.

The fact that we were discussing the circumstances around the death of her former husband did not help much either. It is still a traumatic subject for Machel and at one point she was reduced to tears - tears that were gently wiped away by Madiba. Ever the dignified statesman, he responded to the situation with deep sensitivity and generously used the occasion to pay tribute to Samora Machel's leadership and vision as a true son of Africa.

The next time we met was at her Maputo residence. Barefoot and wearing a simple white T-shirt teamed with a red- and-black wrap-around skirt, this is the environment which she clearly feels most comfortable in.

Although Samora Machel never lived in this house, his presence is firmly entrenched in the giant black-and-white photograph of him that dominates the lounge. But it is still very much Graça Machel's home; from the exquisite marbled floors to the simple African artwork, her stylish taste is evident.

"I love natural light," she keeps stressing and complains that Madiba's Houghton home is too dark. That has since changed as the couple bought a new house in Houghton and this time it is full of natural light, elegant tiled floors and uncluttered, minimalist decor.

In her Maputo home we drink Portuguese white wine, dine on delicious Mozambican cuisine and the talk is of Mozambican politics, the Machel crash and her children. A charming mixture of Latin and African, she is a delightful lunch companion and a lot easier to talk to away from the public glare.

She is an intensely private person, seldom giving public interviews and carefully guarding her personal life. The family is close and this was one of the reasons Machel was reluctant to marry Mandela sooner.

Machel is a little disillusioned with politics, believing the Mozambican Parliament has not accorded her husband his proper place in history. But she confides she does not like to pass on her frustrations to Madiba.

Their relationship in many ways is like that of any normal couple. They have their lovers' tiffs. Once while I was visiting the Houghton residence, Mandela got up to close a window that was letting in cold air.

Machel said: "Oh, Madiba, relax and sit down, you should let me do that." Mandela tried to defend his position, but eventually gave up, laughing: "Don't fight me now, otherwise Debora will write that I don't believe in the equality of the sexes."

But above all it is a relationship of deep love and respect. They adore each other; Mandela calls her "darling" and seizes every opportunity to express his affection physically.

A woman of grace, elegance, style and deep compassion, Machel is easy to love and admire. She is a fitting first lady for South Africa and an ideal companion for the world's favourite president.

Vital Statistics

Born: October 17 1946, in the southern Mozambican province of Gaza

Defining characteristics: Fiercely independent and compassionate

Favourite people: South Africa's president

Least favourite people: Members of the former South African Defence Force

Family: Seven children, two from her marriage to Samora Machel; five from his first marriage 

Likely to say:
"I'd love to do that, but I don't have the time"

Least likely to say: "I have the whole day free"
© Weekly Mail & Guardian


First Lady of Free Africa

Despite press speculation on an imminent marriage to Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel believes that she belongs to Mozambique

ON October 1986, Mozambican President Samora Machel had a premonition that he would soon die. He called his housekeeper and told her: "I have nothing; my wife has nothing." He asked her to gather all the presents he had received as head of state, and to separate those that belonged to the state from those that belonged to him. "Ensure that Graça gets them. It will be the only family legacy I leave to her." On a stormy night only three weeks later, the presidential Tupolev jet mysteriously crashed into a hill 100 metres inside the South African border, robbing Mozambique of the hero of its liberation struggle.

Like an African Jackie Kennedy, Graça Machel's grief mirrored the nation's pain. Like Jackie, she had two young children to raise.

Unlike many African women, she was not dependent on the legacy of her husband. Born in Mozambique's southern Gaza province in 1945 to a Methodist family, she excelled at school and won a place at Lisbon University, "a rare achievement for a Mozambican woman". Even more unexpectedly, she decided to study Germanic languages, and worked underground as a militant for Mozambique's liberation movement, Frelimo.

In 1974, at the age of 29, fresh from military training for Frelimo in Tanzania, she was appointed state secretary of education in the interim government that was charged with paving the way to independence after the overthrow of the fascist government in Portugal. When she married Samora Machel on September 7 1975, she was already minister of education and culture in the first post-independence Mozambican government, and the only woman in the cabinet.

" A friend remarked: "Samora would not
have liked that". "I'm not here as
Samora's wife. I'm me," she snapped back "

She remained fiercely independent, a person in her own right. At the first conference on women in Mozambique in Maputo in 1984, she openly rebuked her husband, the president of the republic, for interfering with and patronising the conference. She warned him to leave women's matters to women.

Once, after her husband's death, a friend remarked: "Samora would not have liked that". "I'm not here as Samora's wife. I'm me," she snapped back.

There are few other women in Southern Africa who would have shown such spunk. It is worth reflecting that one of them is Winnie Mandela, the estranged wife of Nelson Mandela, to whom Graça has recently been romantically linked.

When Samora Machel died in 1986, the Mandelas together wrote to Graça, saying that, for the first time, they had applied to the regime for permission to leave South Africa. "Today, our place was to be with you physically ... We were prevented from being present with you to share your sorrow, to lighten your grief, to hold you very close."

Graça responded with a moving reply: "From within your vast prison, you brought a ray of light in my hour of darkness." To Winnie Mandela, Graça wrote: "Those who have locked up your husband are the same as those who killed mine. They think that by cutting down the tallest trees they can destroy the forest." Whether or not apartheid South Africa was responsible for the crash as Graça and many others believed, the dream of a new Mozambique that she and her husband had forged was already shattered by the devastating war waged by the South African-backed Renamo movement.

It was, ultimately, that war which killed the President and destroyed her life's work. During the early years of independence, there was still the dream that socialism could change the world, improve the lot of the poor.

In the first two years of independence, as education minister, she oversaw an increase of Mozambique's school-going population from 400 000 to 1,6-million, the vast majority at primary school. Twelve percent of the national budget was devoted to education. In this new age of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund strictures, it is hard to remember when developing Africa spent money on health and education.

But Renamo's war machine targeted schools and primary health clinics, and the military budget sucked more and more of the life blood away from Frelimo's commitment to build a better world for the people of Mozambique. Graça Machel was herself criticised for not fighting hard enough to prevent the budget cuts on education.

Tired and disillusioned, she quit as minister of education in 1986. Today, Mozambique's education system is in tatters, almost back in year zero, 1975, when the Portuguese colonisers left a legacy of mass illiteracy.

" Mandela and Graça Machel have never
been seen in public together, but their
private friendship has been the
subject of rumours for at least a year. "

Graça stayed in Frelimo, and a member of parliament until last December, a tough critic from the left of the former Marxist-Leninist party's lurch into "structural adjustment". But then she was Eleanor Roosevelt rather than Madame Mao, a perpetual first lady devoting her life to benefit children, rather than pursuing her own political agenda.

She is a goodwill ambassador for Unicef and has her own Foundation for Communal Work. She is co-ordinating an international project to give aid to children affected by war and has a Unicef office in South Africa, which is at least one reason for her frequent visits to Johannesburg.

Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel have never been seen in public together, but their private friendship has been the subject of rumours for at least a year. Then, two weeks ago, in the wake of Nelson Mandela's divorce action against Winnie, a flurry of press reports named Graça as Mandela's intended wife.

She regularly visits Johannesburg, and President Mandela is known to have made several personal trips to Mozambique this year. Last week, when she broke her silence, it was only to deny that she would marry. The president, with his usual old-fashioned stiffness when it comes to personal matters, has chosen to say nothing about the matter at all. His aides explain merely that he has "no plans" to marry again.

Perhaps one ought not to be surprised that Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel are attracted to one another. Like Samora, Mandela's taste is for dynamic women. Whatever Mrs Mandela's foibles, she has always been a struggler. Samora's first wife, Jozina, was a guerrilla fighter who died in 1971, in the camps of Tanzania.

If there are similarities between Graça Machel and Mrs Mandela, such as the tough, uncompromising voice, they are also worlds apart. Where flamboyant Mrs Mandela can hardly put a foot forward without stepping in controversy, Graça Machel genuinely shuns publicity, preferring instead to continue quietly with her work. There is tantalisingly little published about her anywhere.

In recent weeks, after the connection with Nelson Mandela was made public, she has been rudely awakened by the paparazzi of South Africa's women's magazines. She's fed up, she says, with answering questions about Nelson Mandela. But she has also been known to giggle when asked about the friendship, and is, it seems, incapable of saying Winnie Mandela's name out loud.

She is appalled at the inference that she is to blame for the divorce action that Nelson Mandela initiated against Mrs Mandela some six weeks ago. "I must have some media profile in my present job. I want it for my work ... but not this ... not this ...", she said.

At least one reason for the prurience of the South African public is a genuine affection for their ageing president and concern that, after over 27 years in jail, he returns at night to an empty hearth. He led South Africa away from apartheid, he was the founder of its democratic government, he sacrificed many years of his life but, in the end, he won. Still, after all this, there is a gigantic piece missing from his life.

Mrs Mandela has her loyalists, but she is not viewed with nearly the same warmth as her husband. In a country where first ladies have traditionally kept their mouths shut and busied themselves with fitting new curtains at the presidential mansion, Winnie Mandela is about as violent a break with the past as possible.

A first lady, particularly in an embryonic democracy like South Africa, is a role model. Perhaps the excitement which has surrounded Graça Machel is not just that she represents an alternative role-model for women, but that this slim, striking woman represents a different alternative to Mrs Mandela.

Graça Machel probably means it when she says that she won't marry Nelson Mandela. She belongs to Mozambique. "She's like Che Guevara's wife, she can't marry again," one Mozambican friend of hers says.

With Winnie Mandela threatening to turn the divorce action into a messy wrangle, Graça Machel could be forgiven if she wanted no part of it. As Graça wrote to Mrs Mandela in 1986: "I wish I had your strength and courage. In this painful hour, I look for inspiration in your example." -- The Observer

Mandela longs for wedding bells

September 20, 1996

Mail & Guardian Reporters

He is said to have the whole world in his hands ... but Nelson Mandela continues to be frustrated in realising the dream that appears closest to his heart: a walk down the aisle with Graça Machel as his bride.

In his first on-the-record interview dealing with his love affair with Samora Machel's widow, Mandela said ruefully this week: "She has made a clear statement that she will not marry the president of South Africa. I cannot overrule her."

Graça's refusal to contemplate marriage is believed to be due in part to pressure from the Machel family as well as Mozambique's President Joachim Chissano. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is also believed to have objected to the idea of her ex-husband marrying again, on the grounds it would be psychologically damaging to her children.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times President Mandela said he plans to share his home for two weeks each month with Machel. She would also begin attending events and travelling with him. "Anything is possible, save marriage," he said.

The newspaper noted that Mandela is winding down his presidential role - quoting his spokesman, Parks Mankahlana, as saying the president would "effectively stand down from politics" after he resigns the leadership of the African National Congress at its congress in December next year.

The passionate nature of the affair between the president and Mozambique's former first lady was expressed by Machel in a radio interview this week. "It's just wonderful that after so much pain I have gone through - and I believe that is also from Nelson's side - that finally we have found each other and can start to share a life together," she said. "It is just wonderful. There were times when I thought it couldn't happen any more in my life."

© Weekly Mail & Guardian

Religious leaders say Nelson should `sanctify' relationship

October 04, 1996

SPEAKING of marriage, South African religious leaders say they would fully support President Nelson Mandela if he chose to make Graça Machel the next first lady of South Africa.

While most religious leaders who spoke to the Mail & Guardian this week said they didn't want to interfere with Mandela's "democratic rights", the general consensus was that "any adult relationship should be sanctified by wedding vows".

Former Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu has already made clear his hope that the leading couple would tie the knot. This week he was joined by several other religious leaders.

Methodist Church Bishop Stanley Magoba said he didn't "really think we can have a head of state in a relationship without marriage, but I don't want to pressure them".

Rhema Ministries Pastor Ray McCauley said he would "very much like to see [Mandela] remarry. He deserves some comfort and companionship in his golden years".

Orthodox Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris agreed, but said it was all up to the president: "If he's of a mind to, yes".

Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk spokesman Willie Botha said: "They are adult people, and it's for them to decide. If they are having an adult relationship I would say get married. It's not only a political issue, but also a personal one."

South African Hindu Maha Sabha secretary Rugbeer Kalideen also left it up to the president: "As one of the great statesman, he has a right to marry if he chooses to do so. There's nothing to stop him."

Moulana Ahmed Kathrada of the Natal Jamiat Ul-Ulema said it was "their life", but added that "if anybody is committing adultery it will be wrong whether it's the president or someone else".

Church of England Bishop Joe Bell agreed: "It's a personal decision, but we would condemn pre-marital sex," he said.

© Weekly Mail & Guardian

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