It is said that behind every great man, there is a great woman.
It is less often said that besides two great men, there is one great woman.
However, if ever there was one, Graça Machel is that woman.
Neé Graça Simbine on the 17th of October 1945 (44 days after Japan’s official surrender confirmed the end of WWII) in the small province of Gaza (Mozambique), young Graça was destined to become one of Africa – and the world’s – strongest and most exemplary women through her sheer devotion to the welfare of the civilians and refugees who are war’s biggest victims.
She was born in the rural region of Incadine – the last of 6 children to a father who perished before she was born – and spent much of her life being educated at a Methodist school before being granted a scholarship to study German at the University of Lisbon in 1968. This was where she began to involve herself in the push for Mozambique’s independence.
Due to pressure from the Portuguese Secret Service, young Graça had to abandon her education and flee to Switzerland due to her firm belief in Mozambique’s independence – and most crucially, the political activities she conducted in order to make it a reality.
In 1973, she joined FRELIMO – the Mozambican Liberation Front – dedicated to freeing Mozambique from the clutches of its Portuguese colonial masters. She was still in Europe by then, watching earnestly as a millions of courageous young Mozambicans set about re-conquering their motherland despite their colossal military inferiority. As a pro-socialist movement, FRELIMO received help from Russian, Cuban and Chinese specialists, and when Graça reached Tanzania, it was these men she found helping in the running of the FRELIMO headquarters.
Whole-heartedly dedicated to the cause, Graça learnt how to assemble and disassemble a rifle, and prepared herself for action alongside the many brave men and women who fought for the independence of Mozambique.
She later spent time in the Cabo Delgado province, where she met the very first President of Mozambique and her future partner, Samora Machel.
In 1974 – as FRELIMO set up schools and training camps in every liberated territory and in friendly Tanzania – she was appointed Deputy Director of the FRELIMO Secondary School in Bagamoyo, Tanzania.
After a long and incredible 10-year struggle, Mozambique finally declared their independence on the 25th of June 1975, against all odds.
Graça then became a part of FRELIMO’s Central Committee and was appointed Minister of Education & Culture. During her administration, enrolment in schools in Mozambique rose from about 40% for all school-aged children, to an era-defining 90% for males and 75% for females. 1.1 million children joined school, and illiteracy was reduced by 72% during her tenure. She remains one of the most brilliant ministers in Mozambican history. 1975 was also the year of her marriage to Samora Machel, the name she would keep until today.
She left her post in 1989, three years after the controversial death of her husband and the Mozambican President, Samora Machel. He was killed in mysterious circumstances (still mired in conspiracy theories today) when his plane crashed in Mbuzini, South Africa.
After the fledgling nation was brought to its knees by pro-Western rebels guided and funded by the hostile Rhodesian and apartheid governments – in Zimbabwe and South Africa respectively, as well as major Western powers fearing a Socialist country in Africa – Graça Machel devoted her life and energy to helping refugees and young children whose lives had been torn apart by the civil war. She devoted her life’s work to helping Mozambique get back on its feet, nurturing children and women and helping to bring stability back to her beloved nation.
She was also President of the National Commission of UNESCO in Mozambique, and served on the international steering committee for the World Conference on Education for All in 1990. She was part of a delegation to the 1998 UNICEF conference in Zimbabwe.
On the 11th of November 1996, the UN published her ground-breaking report on the suffering of children who were made refugees by the war – she’d been earmarked as an expert on the matter due to her massive work in the field. Her work set the precedent for several posterior peace talks in the international community through its innovative focus on issues previously unaddressed by big political powers.
In 1994, she founded a non-profit organisation called the Foundation of Community Development, bringing technology and aid to communities that were too poor or affected by the war, and to aid in the reconstruction of Mozambique.
In 1998, Machel married Nelson Mandela, then President of South Africa, and became the first woman to ever be the First Lady of two different nations. Her dignity and class shone through after his regrettable passing, when she did her best to mediate the family wrangles and waived any right to his estate.
Graça Machel has devoted her life to helping people, and is today widely recognized as one of the most iconic females in the world.