As Nelson Mandela celebrates his 95th birthday in hospital on 18 July many will put his against-the-odds survival down to his indomitable will. The great man himself might be inclined to cite the support of Graça Machel, a politician and humanitarian from Mozambique, whom he married on his 80th.
Together, they have travelled the world, drumming up support for his philanthropic causes. Always beaming, the duo were an A-team that radiated charisma, charming the great and the good. Now the leader is ailing, his wife who is 27 years his junior, has rarely left his bedside.
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Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel married on his 80th birthday in 1998
“She is the boss,” he said in 2007. “When I am alone, I am weak.” While the statesman calls her the boss, the adjective others use most about the third Mrs Mandela is ‘gracious’.
They began courting – and it was a courtship, there was not so much as kiss until their wedding day – in 1996. Then in office, he had fulfilled his life’s ambition but keenly felt the lack of a companion after the end of his marriage to Winnie Mandela.
“We were both very, very lonely,” she said. “We both wanted someone you could talk to, someone who’d understand.”
His third wife is a former freedom fighter too
A former freedom fighter herself, she was well placed to understand. The young Graça had helped her country gain independence from Portugal. She’d trained as a guerrilla fighter and fell in love with the head of the liberation movement, Samora Machel.
The couple married in 1975 and went on to have two children, a son and daughter. Her husband became president, while she began a drive to boost literacy as minister of education and culture.
In 1986, the Mozambique leader was killed in a mysterious plane crash, his devastated widow wore black for five years. Winnie and Nelson Mandela, who was still in prison at the time sent her a letter of condolence.
“From within your vast prison, you brought a ray of light in my hour of darkness,” she replied.
The statesman introduces his wife to his “friend Elizabeth”
Little did she know that their paths would be more closely bound in the future.
Of the unique circumstances that have made her first lady in two countries, she has said: “It’s not two leaders who fell in love with me, but two real people. I feel privileged that I have shared my life with two such exceptional men.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu played matchmaker, telling the nation the president needs “someone to give him his slippers”. His beloved wasn’t so easily persuaded she lived an hour’s plane ride away and was busy with her work fighting for the rights of child refugees.
The legend who toppled apartheid would have to do what men everywhere do – put in the work. He rang her twice a day until she accepted his proposal.
Meeting Will Smith and Denzel Washington and their wives
He loves the fact that the wife who has brightened the last chapter of his life sees him as a man not a legend.
“People may say my husband is a saint,” she told one English newspaper, “but … to me, he is just a human being who is simple and gentle. I wasn’t prepared for Madiba (his clan name) 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.”