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Graça Machel: so much more than a first lady

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Shakespeare, in one of Nelson Mandela's favourite lines, now strangely apposite, says that "the valiant never taste of death but once". As the world waits for Mandela to make his final rendezvous with history, one woman – his third wife – who has been at his bedside throughout his illness, and now keeps vigil there, is almost perfectly cast for her role. Graça Machel (pronounced Mah-shell) has, after all, been here before.

 

In 1986, Machel was tragically widowed when the Russian Tupolev jet carrying her husband, Samora Machel, the first president of independent Mozambique, ploughed into a remote hillside just inside the South African border.

The apartheid regime denied involvement, but suspicions of a political assassination linger. As the nation rallied in grief, Graça Machel, a young mother, was dubbed Mozambique's Jackie Kennedy.

It's not an implausible comparison. She has the same easy, cosmopolitan self-confidence, natural presence, and command of languages (English, Portuguese and French).

She has many weighty qualifications, too, including a law degree – combined with an impressive slate of global achievements in women's rights and humanitarian issues. "I'm not Samora's wife," she's been known to snap. "I'm me." In public, she's beloved for her ready smiles and self-deprecating humour, mixed with a steely determination. As Mozambique's first lady, she was widely credited with being a moderating influence over her firebrand Marxist husband.

And if Samora Machel's story is now part of African liberation folklore, and if Nelson Mandela is a figure for the ages, Graça Machel is close to the equal of her two husbands. Shy of publicity, she once said: "It's not two leaders who fell in love with me, but two real people. I feel privileged that I have shared my life with two such exceptional men."

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