Graça Machel

The Mozambican activist and government official Graça Machel (born 1945) has been recognized for both her professional and personal accomplishments. As the first First Lady of newly independent Mozambique during the 1970s, Machel spearheaded advances in Mozambican education as head of the country's education ministry; she later married South African president Nelson Mandela and was at his bedside in his final days.

Graça Machel (pronounced Ma-SHELL) was born Graça Simbine on October 17, 1945, the youngest child of a poor rural family in Chefe Incadine, in Gaza province of what was then Portuguese-ruled Mozambique. Her father was a farmer, a part-time worker in South African mines, and a Methodist minister who insisted on and made sacrifices for the education of his six children. Machel's father died 17 days before she was born, and before his death his wife promised that the infant would be sent to school. Her mother kept the promise. “She brought six of us up on her own and didn't remarry just to take care of us,” Machel recalled, according to an article for All Africa.

Desire for Education Inspired by Father

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

The newly politicized Machel became part of a group interested in furthering revolutionary activities in their home countries. Although members tried to disguise these meeting by pretending they were partying, Portuguese authorities saw through the ruse, and she soon found herself under investigation by the Portuguese secret police. Fearing arrest if she stayed in Portugal or returned to Mozambique, Machel fled to Switzerland in 1972. The following year she joined the Marxist Frente de Libertaça˜o de Moçambique (FRELIMO, the Mozambique Liberation Front), which was waging a guerrilla war against the Portuguese colonial government from its headquarters as well as training camps abroad. Assigned to a military training camp, she learned how to take apart and reassemble an assault rifle, a skill she has never forgotten. Machel saw military action in Mozambique's Cabo Delgado province, where she met fellow resistance fighter Samora Machel, whose first wife had died of leukemia. She then returned to Tanzania to teach at a FRELIMO-operated school.

Married in Presence of Revolutionary Leaders

1975 was a significant year in Machel's life. After the fall of Portugal's authoritarian regime, FRELIMO negotiated the peaceful separation of Mozambique from Portugal, and on June 25, the country became independent. The Marxist revolutionary group now established a one-party state that, as in other former Portuguese colonies, was hamstrung by the mass flight of the country's professional class. Machel, whose only educational experience had consisted in teaching high school in Tanzania, now became the new country's education minister. In September of 1975, she married Samora Machel, with Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda and Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere serving as best men.

The successes Machel achieved as education minister resulted, in part, by her willngess to acknowledge her limitations. “I had no clue of what to do in such situation,” she recalled in All Africa. “I think the only credit I can give to myself is that I built a team of experienced hands and said, ‘Guys, this is a very big task. How can we work together?’ … It was a revolution in those days and you have to work with what is available. It is not because I was the best, but someone had to do it and it fell upon me to do it.” Given that FRELIMO faced an armed insurgency from the anti-Marxist (and South African–and American-backed) RENAMO insurgency, Machel's record was impressive and gained international recognition in spite of cold war barriers.

Raised Country's Literacy Rate

Machel focused her efforts on education, and specifically on the reduction of illiteracy, which stood at 93 percent when Mozambique became independent. By the time Machel left her post in 1986, the figure stood at 72 percent. Although the Machel government was unable to meet its goal of free universal education for Mozambicans, Graça Machel's efforts resulted in an increase from 400,000 Mozambican children in school when she took office to about 1.5 million after a decade. The literacy rate was improved partly through an innovative program Machel spearheaded: parents were encouraged to come to school in the evening with their children. Machel achieved these advances amid the crippling drought that struck Mozambique between 1979 and 1981, as well as despite the responsibilities involved in raising the two children she had with Samora Michel as well as the five he brought from his first marriage.

In 1991, Machel's 12-year-old son, Malengani, persuaded her to launch a new enterprise: the Foundation for Community Development, which she presided over until well into the 21st century. A nonprofit agency, the foundation focused on grants to civil society organizations that strengthened and stabilized communities within a newly democratic Mozambique, which, apartheid was dismantled in South Africa, negotiated an end to its civil war. Machel placed special emphasis on the situation of children whose lives had been disrupted by political violence, and her efforts were acknowledged in 1995, when she was given the UN's Nansen Refugee Award. Her name briefly circulated as a possible pick for UN secretary general, but the post went to Ghanaian diplomat Kofi Annan the following year. Also in 1996, Machel wrote an influential UN report titled “The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children.”

Developed Close Relationship with Mandela

Machel's new job involved international travel, and on one trip she met Nelson Mandela, who by then was democratic South Africa's first president. She had written to Mandela and his wife Winnie while he was still in prison and a friendship between the two developed. Machel by now was no longer married. After Nelson and Winnie Mandela separated, their friendship developed into love, Mandela made frequent visits to Mozambique to see her. At first, Machel avoided discussing her private life with the South African press, discouraging rumors about marriage by stating that she was committed to Mozambique. “Nelson and I were together some time before love came,” Machel told Fiona Keating of the International Business Times. “It wasn't love at first sight. No, with me, things don't happen like that.”

Mandela and Machel were married on July 18, 1998, at South Africa's Gallagher Convention Center. Among the 2,000 guests in attendance were several African Americans: singers Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson as well as actor Danny Glover. Upon her marriage, Machel became the first woman since medieval queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (1137–1204) to have been a member of ruling families in two different countries. Noting that “both of us went through very painful experiences” prior to meeting, according to Krissah Thompson of the Washington Post, Machel explained of her marriage that she and Mandela “enjoy this relationship with such fulfillment and such plenitude.” “It's so sweet and so complete and so natural,” she added. “We don't take it for granted. We know what it is to be without. We say to each other, at last we are very lucky people because we could have ended up without being able to share this experience.”

Ordinary South Africans were split about the marriage: Some mistrusted Machel as a foreigner while others celebrated, believing that Mandela—whose contentious divorce from Winnie had became final in 1996—deserved a new life companion. Her popularity grew steadily in South Africa, and by the time she nursed Mandela through his final illness she had become a beloved figure. When Mandela died on December 5, 2013, Machel became a widow for the second time.

For her contributions to life in her native Mozambique, Machel has received many awards, including the Laureate of Africa Prize (1992), an honorary doctorate from the University of Barcelona, Spain (2008), the Africare Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award, the Council of Europe's North-South Prize, and an honorary designation as Dame Commander of the British Empire. Jointly with Mandela, she also received the World Children's Prize in 2005. Since Mandela's death, Machel has remained active in South African life, speaking out in 2015 against the violent mistreatment of foreigners—including Mozambicans—who had entered the country as migrant workers.



All Africa, August 16, 2014.

Ebony, May 1997, p. 118.

Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), October 7, 1995, p. D4.

Observer (London, England), September 17, 1995, p. 5; June 30, 2013, p. 28.

Washington Post, July 5, 2013.


BBC News online, (January 27, 2017), “Graca Machel.”

CNN online, (December 14, 2013), “Nelson Mandela: 10 Things to Know about His Wife, Graca Machel.”

International Business Times online, (December 7, 2013), Fiona Keating, “Profile of Graça Machel, Nelson Mandela's Third Wife.”

South African History online, (October 16, 2015), “Graça Simbine Machel.”❑

(MLA 8th Edition)