A Mother For Many, Graca Machel, Is A Great Soul

Graca Machel, is a Mozambican politician and humanitarian.

Born Graca Simbine on 17 October 1945, she is the third wife of former South African President, Nelson Mandela, and the widow of former Mozambican President Samora Machel.

She is also an international advocate for women’s and children’s rights. In 1997 she was made a British dame for her humanitarian work.

Currently, Machel serves as the chair of the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa (AWEPA) Eminent Advisory Board.

She is the only person in history to have been first lady of two different African countries, serving as the First Lady of Mozambique from 1975 to 1986 and the First Lady of South Africa from 1998 to 1999. Her first husband died in a plane crash over South Africa in 1986.

Born in rural Incadine, Gaza Province, Portuguese East Africa, she attended Methodist mission schools before gaining a scholarship to the University of Lisbon in Portugal, where she studied German and first became involved in independence issues.

She was born in a country firmly under the colonial thumb of Portugal. The last of a family of six children, she made her first appearance in a rural area–a circumstance that could have doomed her to the sketchy and haphazard schooling deemed suitable for most Mozambican children.

However, she was spared this burden of ignorance by her father’s foresight as well as by the post he had occupied as a Methodist minister. Though he died three weeks before she was born, he left explicit instructions that her older siblings were to see her through high school.

After that, a church-based scholarship made it possible for her to attend Lisbon University in 1968, to major in romance languages.

In company with college students from around the world, Machel found that living away from home broadened her outlook.

Everyday she met people from Angola, Guinea-Bisseau and other Portuguese colonies, with whom she could compare notes and plunge into lively but strictly forbidden discussions about anti-government issues.

“We had to pretend that we were having parties, and play the music very loud and pretend we were dancing,” she told The Christian Science Monitor in 1990, “but we were talking about politics,” she added.

The ruse soon came to an end. Always on the lookout for political troublemakers, the Portuguese secret police pounced on the group in 1972 and dispersed it forthwith. Machel was forced to abandon her education and flee to Switzerland to escape the prison sentence that was almost certainly waiting for her in Mozambique.

After her spell in Europe, Machel returned to Portuguese East Africa in 1973, to continue her activism since she had joined the Mozambican Liberation Front (Frelimo) and became a schoolteacher. When Graca Machel arrived in Tanzania from Europe, she found an efficiently-run FRELIMO headquarters operation, as well as storage facilities, supply routes, and two training camps, one run by Chinese instructors, the other by Russians. Assigned to one of them, she went through a military training so thorough that she has never forgotten how to take an assault rifle apart and put it back together.

And following Mozambique’s independence in 1975, Machel was appointed Minister for Education and Culture. She married Samora Machel the same year, who she had met during her Frelimo activism.

By virtue of her teaching experience in Tanzania, she was also appointed Minister of Education to the new government, and her many household responsibilities paled by comparison with the mammoth task facing her in her work. Her overarching challenge, she knew, would be to provide a jumpstart for the educational system, which had largely ground to a halt because so many teachers had fled the country after the Portuguese surrender in April, 1974.

Even bigger changes were necessary to educate the more traditionally-minded rural Mozambicans, who had been subjected to the inferior education that would keep them subservient enough to provide a cheap labor source.

For them, existing textbooks would have to be scrapped; certain subjects, such as history, would have to be completely redesigned to reflect the truth and to record Mozambique’s latest events. And parents, in need of an education as well as their children, “must be encouraged to come to classes held at night, so that the appalling 93% rate of illiteracy could be deflated as quickly as possible.”

These priorities were tackled so swiftly that the tireless Minister of Education was able to shave the illiteracy rate to 72%, a stunning victory indeed.

Machel was pleased, but she knew that these efforts were, at most, just band-aids.

Granted, classes were available, but they had not been properly planned; teachers were present, but many were not properly trained, and curricula, while in use, were makeshifts at best, which had been cobbled together for temporary use until more thorough preparation could take place at government level.

Looking back on these hastily-assembled measures in 1985, she told the Times Educational Supplement: “We needed to know better what our aims were, and the real condition of our human resources.”

By 1980, with the right to education clearly set forth in Mozambique’s new constitution, there had been enough time to visualize these aims clearly, and to set them crisply forth in a ten-year educational plan called the Prospective Plan (PPI) for the 1980-1990 Decade. New stipulations were to include, by 1989, provision for a seven-year primary school span; the official introduction of adult education, and most importantly, a clearly- designated method of training the teachers who would be leading their students along a new nation’s educational highway.

A Tupolev aircraft flying back to Mozambique from a summit meeting in Zambia strayed 37 degrees off course, to fly over the Lebombo Mountains that form the Mozambican boundary with South Africa. Then, mysteriously, it crumpled against a hillside on the South African side of the border. There were 34 passengers killed in the crash. Among them– Samora Machel.

Graca Machel was devastated. Pictures of the Machel funeral show her bowed over her husband’s casket, prostrate with pain. “His death was so unexpected, and it was in such a violent way,” she recalled for Ebony (a black American media group).

In the company of many other sympathizers from around the world, jailed South African activist Nelson Mandela and his then-wife, Winnie, sent warm condolences for the loss of Samora Machel.

Graca Machel replied as soon as she felt able to do so. The newspaper Scotland on Sunday quoted her reply, “Those who have locked up your husband have killed mine,” she wrote to Winnie Mandela, “They think that by cutting down the tallest trees they can destroy the forest,” she added.

The “forest” continued to grow, but Graca Machel felt she had given whatever she could to her government post. She was now a widow with the solitary responsibility of bringing up her family alone, and she felt it was time for a change of scene. Soon after her husband’s death she resigned her post as Minister of Education, leaving behind a sterling record of 1.5 million children in school, as against 400,000 when she had arrived.

Following her retirement from the Mozambique ministry, Machel was appointed as the expert in charge of producing the groundbreaking United Nations report on the impact of armed conflict on children.

In 1995, Machel received the Nansen Medal from the United Nations in recognition of her longstanding humanitarian work, particularly on behalf of refugee children.

She married Mandela on 18 July 1998, on Madiba’s 80th birthday.

In 1998, she was one of the two winners of the North-South Prize.

Positions and Awards of Machel include:

President School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; Mozambican Minister for Education; Chairman of National Organization of Children of Mozambique; Organization that places orphans in village homes; Works closely with families to rehabilitate children; Delegate to 1998 UNICEF conference in Zimbabwe, President of National Commission of UNESCO;Member of Commonwealth of Nations’ Eminent Persons Group; Served international steering committee 1990 World Conference on Education for All.

Her other achievements include: Recipient of InterAction’s humanitarian award 1997; Received major award from CARE as result-longstanding work on behalf of children; Machel won the Nansen Refugee Award, awarded by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees for her humanitarian work; She is also a member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s Ibrahim Prize Committee; Doutora Honoris Causa by University of Évora, Portugal, 14 November 2008; On 28 August 2007 Graça Machel was made an honorary Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire at the request of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown; Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) Honoris Causa in March 2008, from the University of Stellenbosch and she is the Chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

On 18 July 2007 in Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, and Desmond Tutu convened The Elders, a group of world leaders to contribute their wisdom, leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems. Mandela announced its formation in a speech on his 89th birthday.

Kofi Annan serves as Chair of The Elders and Gro Harlem Brundtland as Deputy Chair. The other members of the group are Martti Ahtisaari, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Jimmy Carter, Hina Jilani, Graça Machel, Mary Robinson and Ernesto Zedillo. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu are Honorary Elders.

The Elders work globally, on thematic as well as geographically specific subjects. The Elders’ priority issue areas include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Korean Peninsula, Sudan and South Sudan, sustainable development, and equality for girls and women.

Graça Machel has been particularly involved in The Elders’ work on child marriage, including the founding of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.

Machel is a member of the Africa Progress Panel (APP), a group of ten distinguished individuals who advocate at the highest levels for equitable and sustainable development in Africa. Every year, the Panel releases a report, the Africa Progress Report, which outlines an issue of immediate importance to the continent and suggests a set of associated policies.

In 2012, the Africa Progress Report highlighted issues of Jobs, Justice, and Equity. The 2013 report will outline issues relating to oil, gas, and mining in Africa.

She is also fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and English, as well as her native Tsonga.


Source photo

English: DAR ES SALAAM/TANZANIA, 7MAY10 – Graca Machel (Founder and President, Foundation for Community Development) at the World Economic Forum on Africa held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, May 7, 2010.
Date 7 May 2010, 10:28:15
Source Flickr: Graca Machel, World Economic Forum on Africa 2010
Author Zahur Ramji / Mediapix / World Economic Forum

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