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Aging gracefully: Graça Machel turns 78 today

17 October 2023

Graça Machel is famous for being the first woman in modern history to serve as the First Lady of two countries: Mozambique and South Africa. She was married to the first president of Mozambique, Samora Machel, from 1975 until his untimely death in a suspicious plane crash in October 1986. They had two children together, Josina and Malenga, and she helped raise Machel's five children from previous relationships. She later married the first democratically-elected president in the post-apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela, in 1998 and was by his side when he passed on in December 2013, at the age of 95. Two great men were married to a formidable and powerful African woman in her own right.

Brief profile

Graça Machel was born on 17 October 1945 in the Gaza province of Mozambique. After secondary school, she obtained a scholarship to the University of Lisbon where she studied modern languages. In addition to her native language, Xitsonga, she reportedly speaks Portuguese, English, German, French, Italian and Spanish. She returned to Mozambique in 1973 and joined the independence movement led by the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO). She juggled political activism with her day job as a school teacher. At the age of 30, she became Mozambique's first Minister of Education and Culture and three months after independence, the country's First Lady.

After Samora's death, Graça supported causes such as ending world hunger for which she won the Africa Prize in 1992. She also actively supports refugee children, for which she won the 1995 Nansen medal. The late Queen Elizabeth II made her a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1997. She was the Chancellor of the University of Cape Town from 1999 to 2019 and still holds the role of Chancellor of the African Leadership University. In addition to her non-profit activities, Graça Machel is the Chairperson of the Whatana Group, a privately-held investment company founded in 2005, which is managed by her son, Malenga. The company has shareholdings in Vodacom, M-pesa and Bayport subsidiaries in Mozambique.

Graça Machel at 78

As she turned 78 today, Graça Machel was celebrated by family, friends and admirers from all over the world. Her daughter, was one of the first to send her wishes, calling her "my anchor of pearls". The Nelson Mandela Foundation posted the following on their X (formerly Twitter) handle:

"Happy birthday, Mam’ Graça Machel! The Nelson Mandela Foundation extends its heartfelt birthday wishes to you – a true force for positive change in the world. Through your dedication to peace, justice and equality, you have touched countless lives and left a mark on the global community. Your grace and resilience continue to inspire us all. As you celebrate another year of life, may you be surrounded by love and joy, heartened in the knowledge that you have made an immeasurable difference in the lives of so many. You are loved and admired by people around the world. We wish you a day filled with laughter and cherished moments! Feliz aniversário, Mama!"

Nelson Mandela Foundation. 17 October 2023.

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