After a long, courageous and full life – with great extremes of highs and lows – Nelson Mandela finally found his true soul mate and equal in Graça Machel. A truly magnificent woman in her own right, it is only fitting that the legendary Madiba spent the last years of his life with her.
From the moment that Mandela’s divorce from his second wife, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, was finalised – the rumour mill began churning. And it kept on for a year, churning out many different versions of one of Africa’s greatest love stories – until finally the relationship between these two monumental African figures went public.
Brought together through struggle
Although they didn’t meet until 1991, the paths of these two revolutionaries began intertwining years earlier – as the paths of their countries’ struggles crossed. When South Africa’s struggle heated up, Graça’s then husband Samora Machel – the first president of an independent and liberated Mozambique – opened his country to ANC guerrillas and supporters as a safe haven putting the country in danger for invasion by the South African security forces.
When Samora passed away in a plane crash in 1986, his contribution to the South African struggle was honoured – and Oliver Tambo, then president of the ANC, became the godfather to the children that he left behind. Years later in 1993 when Tambo passed away, this responsibility fell to Mandela. He became the godfather of Graça’s children – and her daughter Jozina came to stay with him in Cape Town while she studied.
The first lady, for the second time
As the first African woman to become a British dame, it’s clear why Mandela – a man loved by many across the world – set his heart on this former first lady of Mozambique. In Graça he found an exceptional woman who studied in Lisbon in her twenties, at a time when that was a remarkable achievement for an African woman. She even trained as a guerrilla – she was fighting for Frelimo when she met her husband, military commander Samora Machel.
She may be 28 years younger than Nelson, but they have so much that ties them together – from their separate but similar struggles, to the fact that she, like him, holds a law degree. In Mozambique, she is just as much of a revered public figure as he is here, and they share a particular passion for child development.
Nelson and Graça were finally married on his 80th birthday, in a private ceremony at his home in Houghton. Him dressed in a gold-patterned shirt and her in a white Elizabethan dress, they said their vows in the presence of a small group of family and friends.
After they were blessed by the Chief Rabbi, the Muslim Sheikh and a Hindu, they were married by a Methodist Bishop, Myume Dandala – before celebrating with 2 000 guests at Nelson’s birthday party.
They met in a time in both of their lives where they were both settled and knew the value of true companionship. They might not have been young and in love, but they enjoyed every day together as if it was the last.