Graca Machel: A Powerful First Lady - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Graca Machel: A Powerful First Lady

Graca Machel: A Powerful First Lady

By Lorena O'Neil

Amsterdam , Nederland , 02-02-2002 Nelson Mandela with Graca Machel
SourcePim Ras/ Hollandse Hoogte/Getty


As the world mourns the passing of Nelson Mandela, few people will miss him more than Graca Machel, who has earned respect and admiration for her own humanitarian and political work.

By Lorena O'Neil

Graca Machel is the only woman in the world who can say she’s been the First Lady of two countries. She was recently widowed by Nelson Mandela but sadly, she’s no stranger to grief. Before saying goodbye to Mandela she had lost her first husband, Samora Machel, the president of Mozambique.

”It’s not two leaders who fell in love with me, but two real people,” the 68-year-old once said.

Her extraordinary husbands are an important part of African history, however Machel does not want to be defined by her marriages. “I’m not Samora’s wife,” she has reportedly said in the past. “I’m me.”

And a strong me that is. Born Graca Simbine to a peasant family on the coast of Mozambique, Machel earned a law degree, was a freedom fighter, and was trained to strip an assault rifle as a guerrilla fighter. She is fluent in Tsonga, French, Portuguese and English. She was the minister of culture and education when her husband became the first president of independent Mozambique. The couple had two children together.

I feel privileged that I have shared my life with two such exceptional men.

Machel was credited with moderating her husband’s Marxist tendencies and, before Mozambique’s civil war, boosting school attendance and literacy rates across a country known for high illiteracy. Tragically, Samora Machel was killed in a plane crash under suspicious circumstances in 1986 and Machel grieved, wearing black for five years and continuing to seek answers as to whether or not he was killed by the South African apartheid regime.

While Machel was in mourning, she received letters from both Nelson Mandela, who was in prison, and Winnie Mandela, who was under house arrest. ”Today we believe that our place was to be with you, physically,” wrote Winnie. “Each of us is imprisoned in different jails.”

Graca on left, Winnie on right, laughing.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela flanked by his former wife Winnie Mandela (right) and current wife Graca Machel (left).

Source Michelly Rall/WireImage/Getty

Machel eventually responded. “Those who have locked up your husband are the same as those who have killed mine,” she wrote.

She also drafted a reply to Nelson, writing , ”From within your vast prison, you brought a ray of light in my hour of darkness.”

Nelson and Machel eventually became friends following his release from prison and subsequent divorce from Winnie. Their friendship blossomed into something more, with Nelson pursuing Machel’s hand in marriage. “We were both very, very lonely,” Machel once said. “We both wanted someone you could talk to, someone who’d understand.” 

The duo was married on Nelson’s 80th birthday in 1998.

I’m in love with a remarkable lady.

Of her relationship she has said, “It’s so sweet and so complete and so natural. We don’t take it for granted. We know what it’s like to be without.” Nelson has also spoken dearly of his third wife, 27 years his junior. “I’m in love with a remarkable lady,” he has said. “I don’t regret the reverses and setbacks because late in my life I am blooming like a flower, because of the love and support she has given me.”

When the couple were first together, reports said Winnie referred to Machel as “that concubine.” Over the years, however, Winnie and Machel have been seen laughing and embracing each other, and Winnie has said they consider each other sisters . The two were both at Nelson’s bedside when he passed away.

As Graca Machel once again mourns the loss of a husband, she remains an economic and political force in Mozambique. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Machel as she carries on not only Samora Machel’s and Nelson Mandela’s legacy, but her own.

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