Graça, there until the end

2013-12-08 10:00

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Late on Friday night, US president Barack Obama called Graça Machel to express his “profound gratitude” for the joy she had brought to Nelson Mandela’s life.

He also thanked her for the couple’s shared commitment to a peaceful, fair and loving world.

This was perhaps ironic in the face of so much fighting, squabbling and unseemly behaviour from the extended Mandela family. It was easy to forget that at the centre, seldom heard, hardly ever seen, was his wife of 15 years.

Graça Machel kept up an almost constant vigil by his bedside for the 181 days he lay gravely ill?–?in limbo between life and death.

I spoke to her in that time and said how impressed South Africans were with her grace under pressure.

She shrugged, and in her charming Mozambican accent said, “Oh Debora, it’s what anyone would do.”

When Mandela was in hospital, Graça would sleep there for the most part?–?only occasionally going home for a change of clothes or to get some proper rest. She would hold his hand under the blanket or simply sit there reading a book. This continued when he returned to Houghton. Madiba has always loved having Graça nearby.

I remember when they first married. Shortly afterwards, I spoke to them on their return from an official visit to Brazil.

Madiba was giggling like a teenager about the trip?–constantly reaching out to touch Graça.


Madiba and Graça at the Mandela Africa Concert, which was held in Johannesburg. Picture: Leon Sadiki/City Press

She brought a new freshness into his life. Laid-back, relaxed, her hair always in a short, neat Afro, she liked nothing better than to kick off her shoes and relax with a glass of white wine.

After 27 years of prison food, she introduced new delicacies into his diet. Mandela developed a love for Mozambican prawns and yellow peaches. Occasionally he would even have a sip of sweet, sparkling wine.

With that wonderful mix of Latin and African?–?Graça was spontaneous and outgoing?–?a perfect companion to Mandela’s often contained responsibility.

A powerful woman in her own right and independent to the core, she initially refused to marry Mandela, but eventually succumbed although choosing to retain her own surname.

I visited her once at home in Maputo. Although she did not see Mandela every day, she said he made sure that the last thing he did when they were apart was to phone and chat to her.

Over the past 15 years, she has worked tirelessly to unite the various factions of Mandela’s fractured family.

Her efforts often went unrewarded. The family did not take kindly to a stranger, a foreigner at that. But it is Graça who for the most part was with him in Qunu?–?the place he retired to before falling seriously ill in December last year.

A glowing Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel at their residence in Houghton, Johannesburg, where Madiba celebrated his 83rd birthday with friends and family. Picture: Halden Krog

Qunu is remote with not much in the way of modern conveniences. But she turned Mandela’s house into a home and sacrificed her own interests to give him what he wished for?–uninterrupted time in the place he loved the most.

It cannot have been easy in that house over the past six months but Graça has been careful to stay out of the fray.

Married to two of Africa’s finest presidents?–?first Samora Machel and then Madiba?–?she has been here before.

Her first husband died in a plane crash: the belief remaining that the apartheid regime had a hand in it. She wore black for years until her son shook her out of mourning forcing her to put aside her grief and get on with life.

And she did. She was education minister in Mozambique, a UN ambassador and part of the group of elders.

Then she fell for Madiba and married him on his 80th birthday in 1998. She gave him some of the happiest years of his life.

Let us not forget that Mandela chose Graça, and loved her deeply. Like Obama, we owe her a debt of gratitude for the joy that she gave him.

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