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Meet Graça Machel: First lady of two African countries

In the records of history, there are certain women who are champions of justice, catalysts for change, and beacons of hope.
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In the records of history, there are certain women who are champions of justice, catalysts for change, and beacons of hope. Graça Machel, the esteemed Mozambican humanitarian, politician, and advocate for women’s and children’s rights, undoubtedly has all the qualities mentioned above. With a life marked by resilience, compassion, and unwavering dedication to the betterment of humanity, Graça Machel’s journey is a testament to the transformative power of courage, conviction, and service to others. Graça Simbine Machel is the only woman to have become the First Lady of two different countries – Mozambique and South Africa.

Born on October 17, 1945, in Incadine, Mozambique, Graça Simbine’s childhood was shaped by the era of colonialism and struggle for independence in Africa. She received her education at the Sacred Heart Convent School in Mozambique before earning a scholarship to further her studies in Lisbon University, Portugal where she studied German.

Graça’s life took a fateful turn when she met Samora Machel, the charismatic leader of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) and a prominent figure in the fight against Portuguese colonial rule. Their marriage in 1975 not only marked the beginning of a lifelong partnership but also propelled Graça into the forefront of Mozambique’s struggle for independence and subsequent nation-building efforts. As Mozambique gained independence in 1975 and Samora became the president, Graça Machel assumed the role of First Lady, bringing her intellect, compassion, and commitment to social justice to bear on the country’s development agenda. During her tenure, she played a huge role in advancing education, healthcare, and women’s empowerment initiatives, championing the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised segments of society.

As the first lady of Mozambique, Graça Machel’s was involved in a lot of humanitarian works that are recognized beyond the walls of Mozambique. In 1997, she was appointed by then-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan as an independent expert on the impact of armed conflict on children, leading to the landmark “Machel Report” on the subject. Her work on this project revealed the impact of armed conflict on children and emphasise the urgent need for greater protection and support for young victims of violence.

She led her voice on issues of women’s rights, children’s rights, and social justice on the global stage. In 1998, she co-founded the Graça Machel Trust, an organisation dedicated to promoting the rights and well-being of women and children in Africa. As the First Lady, she combined this position with being the Minister of Education. Samora Machel died in a plane crash on October 19, 1986, and this made Graca to resign her post as minister.

Machel became acquainted with Nelson Mandela after his release from prison on Robben Island

In a twist of fate, Graça Machel’s path intersected with another towering figure in African history: Nelson Mandela, the revered anti-apartheid icon and former President of South Africa. Following Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, Graça and Mandela formed a deep friendship that blossomed into marriage in later years. Their marriage in 1998 not only united them in love but also symbolised a union of two formidable legacies of struggle, resilience, and reconciliation.

As the First Lady of South Africa from 1998 to 1999, Graça Machel brought her wealth of experience and wisdom to bear on the country’s post-apartheid transition and efforts to build a more inclusive and equitable society. She continued her advocacy for women’s and children’s rights, championing initiatives to combat HIV/AIDS, promote education, and advance social justice in South Africa and beyond.

After Mandela’s death in 2013, Graca Mandela continued to be active in national and international efforts to help children and the less fortunate. She is a founding member of “The Elders” an independent group of former global leaders formed in 2007 by Nelson Mandela to work together for peace and human rights. Graca Mandela is also the Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Chancellor of the African Leadership University, President of the School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, and an active leader in numerous other educational and charitable organizations.

Graça Machel’s legacy is one of courage, compassion, and unwavering commitment to the pursuit of justice and equality for all. Through her tireless advocacy, she has touched the lives of countless individuals, inspiring hope, resilience, and positive change in communities across Africa and the world. Her enduring contributions to humanitarianism, diplomacy, and global leadership serve as a beacon of light in a world often beset by darkness and strife.

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