Photo: Everett Collection/REX USA.
They say behind every great man, there's a great a woman. And, if Nelson Mandela was said man, we are in awe of his world-changing wife, Graça Machel. Of course, we're not saying the legend owed his many accomplishments to his partner of 15 years. (He became the first black South African president before they married, after all.) But, Machel is not just some primped and polished first lady made to promote a wholesome family image. No, the self-deprecating, charismatic lawyer, humanitarian, and activist is just as much a part of history as Madiba himself. And, for that, I dedicate this week's ode to Graça Machel, a freedom fighter, freethinker, and pioneer in her own right.
Sure, Machel is known for being the only woman in the world to serve as first lady of two different countries, but it is not the title that defines her. Like Mandela's crusade against apartheid, she started her life fighting for Mozambique's independence from Portugal. Just as adept in the theories of philosophy and law as she was — and still is — with an assault rifle, she's a woman of intellect and gumption. If that's not the definition of badassery, I don't know what is. So, it's not surprising that Samora Machel, who became the first president of an independent Mozambique, found interest in the impassioned young activist. And, yes, she was dubbed Mozambique's Jackie Kennedy for her grace and sophistication, but Graça was a major influence on her first husband and served as minister for education and culture. Note: She is not one to rest on a man's laurels. "I'm not Samora's wife," she's been noted to say. "I'm me."
As a first lady, one is often expected to be the gentler, prettier side to your counterpart — a supplement that appeals to the domestic side of politics. But, Machel, with her natural command and lifelong career championing for women, children, and refugees, has always been an equal partner in her relationships. And, though, she lost Samora in a tragic — and suspicious — plane crash, the grieving widow found solace in the prison-sent letters of her second love, the one and only Nelson Mandela. It wasn't until Mandela turned 80 and after two failed marriages that he would marry Machel, but given their similar backgrounds, it seemed like fate.
Although I'm sad she must now endure another great loss, Graça Machel is and will ever be a woman after my own heart: realistic yet sensitive, logical but idealistic. She once told a Portuguese newspaper, "Nelson and I were together some time before love came. It wasn't love at first sight. No, with me, things don't happen like that." And, later told an English newspaper: "People may say my husband is a saint, but…to me, he is just a human being who is simple and gentle. I wasn't prepared for Madiba coming into my life, but now we make sure we spend time with each other because we were so lonely before. You only live once." Yep, she knew the importance of YOLO before YOLO was a thing. Again, badass.