Graça Machel on life with Madiba
Former first lady Graça Machel reveals why the years she spent with Madiba were so special
MCHRISTINA LAMB ANHATTAN during the annual United Nations gathering of heads of state and there are presidents and prime ministers everywhere. It’s an environment with which the woman in the pink-and-red floral dress is all too familiar – not only is Graça Machel the widow of Nelson Mandela, but she’s the only person in history to have married the heads of state of two different republics. It’s also a description which annoys her.
“I didn’t marry two heads of state,” she corrects me. “I married two exceptional human beings.” The first was her fellow Mozambican Samora Machel, who led the country to independence but was killed in a mysterious air crash in 1986, leaving her widowed with two young children and so devastated she wore black for five years and could hardly speak. Then, as she built a new life for herself, campaigning for children caught up in conflict, she unexpectedly found love with South Africa’s great anti-apartheid leader and first black president, who said she made him “bloom like a flower”. She’s coy about her own feelings. “I met and lived with Madiba at the best of his time,” she says with a fond smile. “He was already content with himself. He’d achieved so much when I met him, he didn’t need to fight to affirm himself, even to me. People say I married a head of state. I didn’t marry a head of state. I married Nelson Mandela. I married a man like anyone.”
Except Mandela was not anyone. Now she finds herself guardian of his legacy,
no easy task when the whole world thinks it knows him. The challenge is even greater with an allegedly corrupt president holding the reins of power, threatening Madiba’s vision of a free, prosperous and non-racial South Africa, and the Mandela family so riven with divisions over inheritance that Graça has been forced to move out of the house she shared with him in Johannesburg.
Graça, who celebrated her 72nd birthday last month, is a lovely person whom I’ve met twice before in her beautiful artfilled home in the Mozambique capital, Maputo. But she’s not an easy interview, reluctant to be drawn on life with one of the world’s most respected statesmen.
“I’m just a housewife,” she insists when I ask about the current situation in South Africa. “What do I have to do with politics?”
We’re meeting because she’s overseen the completion of Mandela’s final project, his account of the first non-racial elections in 1994, his presidential years and the challenges of dismantling five decades of apartheid. The follow-up to his first memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, it was meant to be in his own voice, but he grew too frail and died before he could finish it.
“He wanted to do it the same way as the first book but couldn’t because he did that in prison, when he would write at night instead of sleeping.” But with the second one, “he was busy as head of state, so we’d take him away from Johannesburg and Cape Town to a very quiet place, a farm in Limpopo, where he could focus”.
Graça laughs when I ask her if he used a computer. “No!” she replies. “He wasn’t computer-literate, he wrote by hand.”
He’d penned about 70 000 words when he died of pneumonia in December 2013. Graça hired Mandla Langa, a South African poet and novelist, to “envelop this in a way that makes it pleasant to read”, bringing in those who worked closest with Mandela for context (In honour of Tata, 2 November 2017).
“Madiba was very good at keeping notes, his own personal diary,” she says. “I called his advisers because they knew from experience the decisions he made and why.”
The resulting book is a manual on reconciliation, detailing his efforts on bringing former enemies to work together in government. It’s a powerful reminder of the tremendous challenges of forging his rainbow nation.
“You have to remember the white community had never crossed to Soweto,” she says, laughing. “They had no idea what was happening that side and suddenly they have to share a cabinet with those people.”
The book is called Dare Not Linger – the title drawn from the final passage of his first book, in which Madiba speaks of reaching the summit of a great hill and resting briefly before continuing his journey.
“I can rest only for a moment. For with freedom comes responsibilities and I dare not linger for my long walk has not yet ended,” he writes.
GRAÇA has made an extraordinary journey in her own right, from a peasant family to the first African woman to become a British dame – perhaps the only dame who can strip an AK-47.
Born Graça Simbine to a widowed mother on the coast of Portuguese-ruled Mozambique, she received a scholarship to a high school in Maputo, where she was the only black girl in her class. After studying languages in Lisbon, she joined Frelimo (the Mozambique Liberation Front) and trained as a guerrilla fighter.
There she met the movement’s charismatic leader, Samora Machel, and the pair became lovers during the revolutionary war. When Mozambique gained its independence in June 1975, Machel became president and she the education and culture minister. They married two months later.
When Machel was killed, Mandela wrote to her from jail offering his condolences. “We must believe that his death will strengthen your and our resolve to be finally free,” he wrote. “Our struggle has always been linked and we shall be victorious together.”
Graça replied: “From within your vast prison you brought a ray of light in my hour of darkness.”
Those were prescient words. After Mandela was released from jail in 1990 he visited Maputo and took over as godfather to the Machel children from Oliver Tambo, his ailing fellow freedom fighter.
Graça has always been vague about when they started dating, perhaps because Mandela was still married to
‘I didn’t marry a head of state. I married Nelson Mandela. I married a man like anyone’
his second wife, Winnie. She once told me that, for her, it hadn’t been love at first sight, describing it instead as “something deep like a bell that rings from inside”. According to others, it was Mandela who endlessly phoned her, like a teenager.
Eventually Graça gave in to Mandela’s pleas to visit him in South Africa and their relationship blossomed. It became public when they went for a walk near his house and he presented her with a pink rose.
After his divorce in 1996 she began to accompany him on his travels, starting in Paris then to Zimbabwe for the lavish wedding of Robert Mugabe to his second wife, Grace Marufu.
Graça became the third Mrs Mandela in 1998 in a private ceremony at his house on his 80th birthday, an event so low- key even his spokesman didn’t know. His subsequent birthday party – also their wedding reception – was far from low- key. Around 2 000 guests attended, including Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave the sermon.
Graça believes she was the luckiest of his three wives (his first marriage to Evelyn Ntoko Mase lasted from 1944 to 1958).
“When you’re a young husband and wife, you each have to build your own base in the relationship,” she explains. “But we met when Madiba was seventysomething and I was fiftysomething. This was a relationship between very mature people who knew what they wanted from life. At that time in life you want to share much more than fighting for space as a couple. You want to enjoy companionship and mutual understanding. So it was the best of times. The other wives met him when he was very busy with the struggle, he wouldn’t be at home, but for me it was so good. He had all the time for me and we had the pleasure to go to places we chose and do what we wanted.”
Mandela is often seen as a saint, so I wonder if there were things he did that irritated her. “He had his own weaknesses, like anyone,” she says. “Fortunately, he was a very simple, accessible, humble man with his friends and family. So we didn’t have to manage a gap between what the public thought and the reality.”
He always attracted celebrity friends, from royalty to the Hollywood elite. One of his favourite people was the Queen, whom he called Elizabeth. When Graça told him off, he retorted: “Well, she calls me Nelson.”
“They had a lot of mutual respect,” Graça says. “To the extent that they would call each other on every birthday and other occasions. The Queen was very generous in the way she would relate to him.”
WHEN I ask about Mandela’s final years, she shakes her head. “I don’t think I’m ready to talk,” she says. “It’s been four years, but it still hurts.” She’s so private that her only quote in the book is to comment on how fastidious he was about dress and routine, waking every morning to exercise, fold his pyjamas and make his bed, to the exasperation of the household staff.
“He was extraordinarily disciplined,” she says. “Even the discipline of writing his diary – he’d do it every day, even when tired. I think he developed that even more in jail because it was part of preparing himself with the moral strength to confront the enemy.
That’s why he read ferociously when he was allowed books, and he educated himself so as never to be caught off guard. One thing that surprised many people when he came out of jail was the way he grasped world development, both political and economic, as if he hadn’t been away.”
The book is a reminder of what real leadership can achieve. His was a government of national unity. Not only did former president FW de Klerk become his deputy, but lifelong ANC freedom fighters shared a cabinet with the white politicians who’d imprisoned them.
“Madiba wanted to engage everyone to be able to say, ‘This new dawn in South Africa belongs to me as well and I have a responsibility to make sure it succeeds’,” she explains. “Of course not everyone agreed. There were times when there were tensions and killings, but the unique thing about him was that everyone accepted his moral authority. Even when they disagreed, they knew he was the best person to be in that position, to bring all forces together.”
I ask how Madiba would’ve felt about what’s happening in South Africa today with Zuma – mired in allegations of corruption, cronyism and mismanagement – recently having survived a sixth vote of no confidence in parliament.
The two men were fellow inmates on Robben Island, and Mandela speaks warmly of him in the book, calling him a “shining example of [a] leader who consistently put the welfare of the coun-
‘The other wives met him when he was very busy with the struggle, but for me it was so good’
LEFT: Graça Machel with Madiba in London in 2008. TOP: At a World Cup match in Joburg in 2010. ABOVE: Accompanying him on a trip to Britain in 1997.
LEFT: Madiba, flanked by Graça and his second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, at his 90th birthday celebrations at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Tshwane. ABOVE: Sharing a joke with President Jacob Zuma and former president FW de Klerk in 2009 at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. RIGHT: Graça and Madiba greet Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in London in 2008.