Graca’s vigil of love

2013-07-07 14:00

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» She sleeps in a chair next to his bed

» She arranges for old friends to visit him so he can hear their voices

» Desmond Tutu says she has tried very hard to bring Mandela’s family together

Looking tired and wearing no visible make-up, her hair in a simple short Afro, Graça Machel occasionally leaves the Medi-Clinic Heart Hospital.

But she has never been away for more than three hours before returning to be by her sickly husband’s side.

She has slept in the Pretoria hospital every night since Nelson Mandela was admitted just under a month ago.

While it was reported that she sleeps in a room next to his, City Press has learnt that she actually sleeps in a chair next to his bed.

Family insiders say her devotion to her second husband knows no limits.

In a statement to City Press on Thursday, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said: “South Africans owe Graça Machel a tremendous debt of gratitude for the joy she brought to Nelson Mandela since their marriage. She has not only brought joy to Madiba, she has also tried very hard to draw the Mandela family together.”

Their 15-year anniversary is this month.

After occasional trips to their Joburg home and to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, Machel arrives at the hospital accompanied only by bodyguards in her dark-blue Mercedes-Benz with tinted windows. It is an older-model C Class – in sharp contrast to the new wheels that other family members arrive in.

Clothes and other personal items are brought to the hospital for her every week in a large, red, wheeled suitcase.

On the days she visits, Machel’s daughter Josina stays in the hospital for hours, sometimes the entire day.

According to Mandela’s personal assistant, Zelda la Grange, Machel’s role is critical.

“Madiba always wants reassurance that she is close by. She provides emotional stability not only to him but also to many of us,” she said.

Rivonia Trialist and one of Madiba’s oldest friends, Denis Goldberg, visited on Monday at Machel’s request.

Verne Harris, from the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory where the staff call her “mum”, said Machel “contacted us and said Madiba wanted to see his comrades”.

So staff arranged Goldberg’s visit to the hospital as well as visits from other Rivonia Trialists Ahmed Kathrada and Andrew Mlangeni, because Machel wanted to provide her husband with “the stimulation of hearing voices that he knows”.

Goldberg confirmed Machel has been watching over Madiba around the clock.

“That must be exhausting,” said Goldberg. “My first response when I arrived at the hospital was to embrace her. She was strong and in charge, but looked so tired. I tried to transfer as much strength to her as I could. What a lady.”

He was asked to put on a green surgical gown before entering Mandela’s room. As he spoke to his old comrade, Graça stood at Madiba’s feet.

“When I started speaking to him, he opened his eyes. He was fully conscious,” said Goldberg.

He chatted to Mandela, relaying well-wishes and stories of children at his charity in Hout Bay, Cape Town, and Mandela turned his head towards him.

“Graça assured me that Nelson heard me. She said to me: ‘He is talking to you, he is talking back. It’s just that he cannot move his mouth,’” said Goldberg, adding that it was the pipe down his mouth that prevented him from doing so.

Goldberg said Machel ushered him out of the room after 10 minutes, saying “it was enough”. Afterwards, the struggle veterans chatted to Machel in the corridor.

“People always think of the sick person and omit the caregiver. I’ve nursed two wives through terminal illness. I know what she is going through,” said Goldberg.

Despite her fatigue, Machel has continued to fulfil her obligations and this week spoke at the launch of the Nelson Mandela Sport and Culture Day, thanking the world for its love and support. “We have taken it into our hearts every single day,” she said.

Old friend Professor Njabulo Ndebele saw her at that event. “It was the first time I had seen her for some time,” he said.

“She presented a picture of calm and dignity, and her speech was genuine, not a performance,” he said. He described the Madiba-Graça marriage as one of the century’s greatest love stories.

“I remember the photos of when the world began to catch on that they had become companions,” said Ndebele.

“They were the very picture of lovers. You could see it on their faces. They would hold hands like young people.”

Years later he visited them in Qunu over Christmas, and describes a home “swarming with grandchildren and she was very much at the centre of it all, even overseeing the Christmas lunch”.

His interviews with Mandela in Qunu were difficult at times.

“On several occasions when there was a silence he would call out, ‘Where is Graça?’ When she came to him he would stroke her hair lovingly. I formed the impression he’d become very dependent on her, that she was a source of comfort and solace.”

As the love story slowly fades, Machel is still that.

“It’s so sweet and so complete and so natural,” she said of their relationship in a 1998 interview. “We don’t take it for granted. We know what it is to be without.”

Yesterday she was the only one of Mandela’s family at the hospital; no one else went to see him.

City Press believes that she has also approached some of Madiba’s favourite divas to come to the hospital and sing him the songs he loves so much.

This week she also collected many of the tributes left there by ordinary South Africans.

Said Harris: “She asked us to go to the hospital and retrieve some of the cards and tributes left there for Madiba and bring them back to the centre. Those that had addresses on she asked us please to respond to, sending thanks. She was worried they would become weathered.”

Tutu in his statement said: “Graciousness is the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of (Machel). Gracious wife, gracious feminist, gracious human being. Gracious, but not to be trifled with or under-estimated.”

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