Exclusive: Graça Machel breaks her silence

2014-06-29 15:00

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The black is gone. The scarf and shawl, the widow’s ­identity, is packed away. But her eyes, usually commanding and curious, remain sad. Graça Machel enters a room to capture it. She has a leader’s tall, determined gait, similar to that of her late husband.

We meet at Johannesburg’s Saxon Hotel, where she turns every eye. And although Friday marked the end of her formal mourning, her sadness is still palpable. She is dressed like a states­woman: a smart winter two-piece suit, heels and a pashmina, which she spreads over her legs as much for comfort as for warmth.

She speaks of Madiba in the present tense, in words and sentences that linger in the air like she is checking in with him. “Madiba is?...?a lot of things to me. He means a lot of things to me. He is that very good friend you feel you connect with even if you don’t talk. It’s not only because of what you say. Just looking into the eyes...”

And she breaks off.

What does she miss about the man she married at the age of 53 when he was 80? Madiba died last year, aged 96. The two had a ­marriage that was both fairy tale and old school.

For the last two years of his life, Madiba was often ill. Machel undertook a vigil of love, caring for him at their Houghton home, which was turned into a hospital, and also at the Pretoria Heart hospital, where he spent 12 weeks last year.

“I miss sitting with him in the lounge. I miss feeding him. I’d be holding his hand with one hand and feeding him with the other,” she says, imitating the gesture, honed through regular practice – an act of love and nurturing, not of nursing.

“The communication and intimacy from that was so profound. When I stopped feeding him, because there was no need to feed him [when the elder statesman was fed intravenously], I felt ‘how will I communicate with him?’”

Soon after, Madiba was hospitalised.

“The way of communicating was different, but we always communicated. Even at hospital, Madiba would recognise my touch. Even in a deep sleep, if I touched him, he would know it was me. The expression in his face would tell: he heard me; he hears me. I would say, ‘Good morning. Did you sleep well? It’s Monday, it’s the third. It’s Sunday the fifth.’ I would tell him who called, who sent an SMS...”

That was one year ago, when the Heart Hospital became the site of a national outpouring of love for Madiba. Machel kept a tally of the choirs, church and school groups that visited, and gave Madiba a running commentary.

“I wanted him to keep contact with the outside world. It was important that he didn’t withdraw into himself,” she says.

Tata’s journey into night

Did Madiba understand? “The doctors confirmed to us that the last thing that goes is the hearing. He would listen and I knew he heard. Sometimes he would try to open his eyes. I would sit there and read and hold his hand until I felt he was asleep. I slept in a small cubicle, but I was able to feel when something was wrong. I’d jump up from bed and see why the machine was complaining,” she says.

Machel will not confirm this, but she almost lived at the hospital. Her daughter, Josina, dropped off fresh clothes for her.

“Of course, there were times I would help him to calm down when he was agitated and I’d say ‘Papa, papa, please...’ and he’d rest. The doctors knew I could calm him down.”

At the time, a debate raged over whether Madiba should be at Qunu, in the Pretoria hospital or in their Houghton home.

“The doctors said to me: ‘You know, at this point in time you can take him to China. What’s important for him is where you are.’ They said ‘where I am, he is fine’. [They said] I shouldn’t worry about the physical place.”

A love that kept them young

Madiba and Machel made their relationship public in Paris while on a state visit, where they sneaked around with the aid of South ­Africa’s then ambassador Barbara Masekela.

Earlier this year, Jan-Jan Joubert revealed a delightful anecdote in the Sunday Times that on a rendezvous at the river-bank retreat in Mpumalanga of billionaire Johann Rupert, Machel arrived late at the bush airport.

It was closed, but that didn’t deter them. Machel climbed the airport fence. For a moment, there is joy in the air as Machel remembers and giggles.

“Even for myself, it was revealing. Age doesn’t have anything to do with falling in love. You do all the silly things you do when you are in love. Madiba was about to turn 80; I was in my early 50s. But we became like adolescents. You appreciate the voice, the touch, the being together.

“Being who he was, we couldn’t walk where we wanted to. But if you have been watching us, you’d see all along our life we’d walk hand in hand. It was something which was automatic. We would get out of the car; his security would help him out and the first thing Madiba wanted was my hand. That’s what I miss.”

Photographs of the pair reveal their hands glued together, and often their lips too. “Age does not matter. You become a youngster again. He’d say I was blossoming and I said ‘of course’.

“Let me tell you, Madiba was more gorgeous when he was older than when he was younger. I’d look at his photographs and say: ‘You are much handsomer now.’ He was a tower. I mean, I’m not a short person, but next to him I had to look up. He was a tower.”

Machel met Madiba at a lonely time in his life.

“I met Madiba when he was separated [from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela], not yet divorced,” she says.

She speaks effusively about what he brought to her life. But what did she bring to his? She tries to squirm out of answering, saying I should have asked her husband. It’s too late for that, I say.

“It was about having someone who would restore dignity, that is what he would say: I restored dignity to him.

“I don’t think I should be talking about this. Madiba had felt rejected and just to be accepted again and to be valued and loved and cared for. The thing that was special with me was that for the first time Madiba would have a family life. A family life where there is predictability.

“You can wake up in the morning, and you know the person is there. You can go to work and you say you will meet at lunch. And you know in the evening you will be together. In his first and second marriages, with his political activism, he could not give his wives that sense of normalcy in their lives.”

The couple would speak twice a day, or more, if they were travelling separately. Even with his schedule, Madiba would drop everything to fetch his wife from the airport, even if she was only hop-skipping to Maputo for the day.

Graça moves on 

“Literally, it’s the company I miss. It’s his presence?...?his presence. Sometimes we’d be sitting in the lounge?...?he would be reading and I’d be doing my own thing. And we’d talk and talk and talk?...?and you feel that there’s that connection.”

She laughs. “We didn’t always agree, of course, but you’d know there are no no-go areas. You feel that you have your mind and your soul there. You don’t have to protect yourself. That’s the friend I have in him and, to be honest, that’s the friend I miss.”

She pauses, and repeats herself quietly.

“That’s the friend I miss. What is hard in this is the transition from a reality where you have your beloved one. You can talk, you can touch him, and you can communicate in different ways. Now he is somewhere and you can still communicate with him, but this is difficult.

“This new reality of communicating with him as spirit [is one] I am learning. But it hasn’t hit properly yet.”

This week, Machel will resume her slate of global roles – from her work with women and children to her role in the Elders, a UN group of leaders including Kofi Annan, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Richard Branson.

She rules out running for president of Mozambique, a prediction that surfaces periodically. She will live in South Africa and Mozambique – she is a citizen of both.

She moved out of the Houghton house she shared with Madiba ­because it held too many painful memories. She now lives elsewhere in Johannesburg.

“The mourning has not ended. The grieving has not ended. What has ended is the formal mourning,” says Machel.

“The dressing, not talking in public, that you can’t be away at night. The family and the Tembu elderly acknowledged that I work and it would be extremely difficult for me to be confined for a whole year, so they shortened it to six months.”

Throughout the interview, she speaks of “our family” – the extended, troubled Mandela family. She will not talk about Madiba aide Zelda la Grange’s book, Good Morning, Mr Mandela, which detailed family schisms and feuds.

La Grange wrote about how Machel was poorly treated by Madiba’s eldest daughter, Makaziwe, who reportedly made Machel apply for accreditation to attend her husband’s funeral.

In the way of the schooled stateswoman, Machel says nothing of this, only that she is still reading the book and that “It’s Zelda’s life, her journey, her experience and I respect that.

“She [and I] are on easier ground talking about love.”

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