Nelson Mandela

Double celebration for ailing Mandela

Father of the nationmarks 95th birthday yesterday and 15 years of marriage to Graca Machel, the strength behind the former president

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 July, 2013, 2:49am

When Nelson Mandela turned 95 yesterday, he also marked 15 years of marriage to Graca Machel, who throughout his time in hospital has wooed a nation with her dignified poise.

During the past six weeks Machel has kept a near round-the-clock vigil at her husband's hospital bedside, leaving to attend Mandela's charity events or visit their Johannesburg home.

But then the Mozambican-born Machel, 27 years younger, has already been by Mandela's side for 15 years of marriage. "We make sure we spend time with each other because we were so lonely before. You only live once," she remarked before the ravages of time tightened their grip on her husband.

And their time together may not yet be at an end, with an increasing sense of optimism about Mandela's condition. Three weeks ago, Mandela seemed at death's door; on Wednesday, he was watching television with headphones on, his daughter Zindzi Mandela said.

Describing what she said was a dramatic improvement in Mandela's health in an interview on British television, Zindzi Mandela said: "I should think he will be going home anytime soon.

"He gave us a huge smile and raised his hand," she said, although he was still unable to speak. "He responds with his eyes and his hands."

Machel married Nelson Mandela in 1998, 12 years after her first husband, Mozambique's former president Samora Machel, died in a mysterious plane crash.

At that time Mandela had been divorced from his second wife Winnie for two years, but estranged by time and prison for three decades.

"When I am alone, I am very weak," South Africa's first black president said when discussing Machel in 2007.

On the cusp of their anniversary, Mandela's close friend and lawyer George Bizos described them as "a loving couple".

"They are very happy together," he said, adding that Machel "is dedicated to the wellbeing of her husband … It's commonly known that she spends a long time at his bedside."

While South Africa's revered former statesman battles to recover, Machel has been notably absent from the unseemly squabbles rocking the family.

As she prepared for what seemed to be the inevitable, Machel stayed out of the public eye.

But last week she sounded upbeat, saying she was now less anxious about her husband's health.

The two met in the early 1990s and fast became friends. Eventually, after being spotted at several events holding hands and even stealing a kiss at Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's wedding, the presidency declared Machel was officially Mandela's companion.

Despite her remarkable intellect and impressive history of work promoting literacy, Machel attracted her share of scepticism from South Africans.

This, after all, was a nation used to the flamboyant Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who even joined in the fray mocking her as Mandela's "concubine".

At their wedding on July 18, 1998, archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu said Machel had "made a decent man out of" Mandela. He would later say that "South Africans owe Graca Machel a tremendous debt of gratitude for the joy she has brought to Nelson Mandela".

An independent woman, who wears a broad smile and sports a short afro, Machel chose to keep her former husband's surname after she married Mandela.

She has refused to paint Mandela as a "saint", saying he is "just a human being who is simple and gentle".

She is in Guinness World Records as the first woman to be first lady of two different countries.

Machel joined the liberation war movement Frelimo and received military training in Tanzania in the 1970s. She later became education minister in independent Mozambique.

In 2010 Time magazine named her among the world's 100 most influential people.

A United Nations expert on children in armed conflict, she is also leading a global campaign against child brides.

She is fluent in English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and her native Tsonga.