Accessibility links

Breaking News

Graca Machel: Activist and First Lady to Two Presidents

This photo shows former South African President Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Machel at his home in Johannesburg, May 16, 2011 (file photo). (AP)
She is the only woman in the world to have been the first lady of two countries. Graca Machel married Mozambican revolutionary leader Samora Machel in 1975 – the year Mozambique became free of Portuguese colonial rule, and her husband became president.

She was named the new government's minister of education and culture.

Her husband died in a mysterious plane crash in 1986. Twelve years later, she married South Africa's president, Nelson Mandela. But being a first lady is not her only claim to fame.

On July 18, the fourth annual Nelson Mandela International Day, when South Africans and others around the world celebrate Mandela's birth by taking on community improvement projects, Machel got down on the ground to show children how to care for a vegetable garden.

“Today is an opportunity for millions in the world," she told them, "to look inside themselves and find those beautiful qualities as any human being has and say: I am able to make a difference to my neighbor, to someone under-privileged. I can extend my goodness to other people.”

Machel is known as a long-time children’s rights campaigner. In 2008, she was head of the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunization. She noted “[even] if we can save about three million children a year, we still have ten million who are dying. So that’s the distance.

"But we should be able to celebrate the success in the progress made – that’s what gives you the strength to see it works and it can work.”

In addition, she has worked with the United Nations on reintegrating child soldiers in Africa back into society.

Carol Thompson, a professor at Northern Arizona University professor, remembers Machel as a beautiful person in the full sense of the word.

“I was writing about child soldiers and we received her in Los Angeles," says Thompson. On meeting her, Thompson recalls her as "... so totally professional woman in her own right, a crusader, an advocate. And I am so happy she was able to get together with Nelson Mandela."

Machel was a strong supporter of her husband. She spoke to well-wishers on his birthday three years ago: “He is not physically strong any more, but his spirit is strong as ever, and we are going to have a family gathering as anybody else to cut a cake and to have moments of laughter.”

Being Nelson Mandela's wife is "always going to be a tough job" for Machel, says Hlonipha Mokoena, a South African anthropologist who teachers at Columbia University in New York. "But I think she has done it with the right balance with her own activism. So she’s got her own life, but at the same time she wants to keep the legacy of Mandela alive so she doesn’t try to overshadow [him] with her activities.”

Machel says the years she and Mandela were together seem short. She calls the marriage a meeting of minds – dedicated to common causes – and a meeting of hearts.
  • 16x9 Image

    Mariama Diallo

    Mariama Diallo is a senior reporter covering national and world affairs for Voice of America in multiple languages. She was recently the VOA acting bureau chief for the agency's West Africa office.