Graça Machel on life with Madiba

For­mer first lady Graça Machel re­veals why the years she spent with Madiba were so spe­cial

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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.

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