Icons Of Africa

Graca Machel, much more than just a First Lady

Graca Machel, much more than just a First Lady

By The Kenyan Weekly Correspondent

Graca Machel is a unique woman. She is known world over as a champion of human rights, equity for women and development of children. Her marriage life puts her at the center of controversy, having been the first First Lady of two different republics. She is a two-time widow.

Graca Simbine Machel was born on October 17, 1945 in Gaza, Mozambique. Her father, a Methodist preacher, died days before she was born.

Her elder siblings took care and supported her education through primary and high school. A church-based scholarship programme led her into Lisbon University, Portugal in 1968 where she specialised in Languages.

Due to her anti-colonialism political engagements as a student, which attracted Portuguese sleuth’s surveillance, she left Portugal for Switzerland, where, in 1973, she joined the Mozambican Liberation Front (FRELIMO), a movement that aimed at ending the Portuguese rule of Mozambique. She thereafter moved to Tanzania, Mozambique’s neighbouring country, where a well-established FRELIMO had its headquarters and operations coordinated from.

Graca met her first husband SamoraMachel in the precincts of FRELIMO.They married in1975. Soon after their operations in FRELIMO bore fruitand the Portuguese exited Mozambique, Graca became the pioneer First Lady to the newly Independent Mozambique. President Samora had previously been serving as FRELIMO commander.

She became member of the FRELIMO Central Committee and Education Minister in the new government, where she worked for the betterment of humanity. As Education minister, the former teachertirelessly worked to ensure FRELIMO’s dedication to give Mozambiqueaccess succeeded. At the time of her resignation from the ministrya decade later, at least 1.5 million students were enrolled in school.

In 1986, Graca was to tragically lose her husband in a plane crash. She afterwards befriended the late South Africa’s anti apartheid champion Nelson Madiba Mandela, who was to officially marry her in 1998, during his 80th birthday.

Contrary to the norm, that has seen women adopt their husbands’ names upon marriage, she ignored the Mandela name but kept that of her first husband Machel.

The Elders

Together in 2007 in Johannesburg, Desmond Tutu, Garaca Machel and late husband Mandela founded a group of world leaders – The Elders – to contribute wisdom, leadership and integrity to help shape the world for the better. Through The Elders, Graca has since founded Girls, Not Brides, a movement that aims at ending early marriages.

In 2013, she became the board Chair of The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health – a World Health Organisation wing aimed at universal access to high quality, reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health care.

Africa Progress Panel

Graca is a member of the Africa Progress Panel – a group advocating equitable and sustainable development in African. This panel has since highlighted issues of jobs, trade, justice and Equity in Africa and for Africans as critical matters to the continent’s economic growth.


Since her days as a student to date Graca has held several positions of leadership. These includebeing the President School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of Landon, Chair National Organization of Children in Mozambique, President National Commission of UNESCO, member of Commonwealth of Nations’ Eminent Persons Group, part of International committee 1990 World Conference for All, Chair of the Armed Conflict on Children study to the UN, Chancellor of the University of Cape Town and as Chancellor of African Leadership University, among others.


Her pragmatic leadership approach while serving in various positions and her humanitarian angles of work have seen Graca Machel win several prestigious awards such as CARE Award for work on behalf of children, Inter-Action Humanitarian Award and the UN’s Nansen Refugee Award.

She became a recipient of the MO Ibrahim Prize. Together with her second husband the late Nelson Mandela, they received the World’s Children’s Prize in 2005.

Graca was honored as the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2007, with a doctorate Letters from the University of Massachusetts in 2006 and a Doctor of Philosophy Honoris Causa from University of Stellenbosch in 2008.


Back in 2001, Graca Machel authored a book, “The Impact of War on Children,” which further expressed her dedication on matters children’s rights.

Graca Machel Trust

This was launched last month with a vision of giving a facelift to the perception of an African woman and child by increasing women’s participation in economic development of the continent, supporting women’s political participation and leadership and by ensuring an African child has access to education.

GracaMachel highly condemned the xenophobic attacks in SouthAfrica. She has also been in the forefront of the “Return Our Girls” campaigns in Nigeria following the abduction of 200 Chibok girls byBoko Haram militiamen.

Graca Machel has two children Josina Machel and Malengani Machel.


This story appeared on print [Issue 034, p.19]


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Written by The Kenyan Weekly

The Kenyan Weekly newspaper is a fresh general-news publication published on newsprint once a week.

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