Machel, Graca Simbine 1945–
Graca Simbine Machel 1945–
Graca Machel has been an African celebrity since 1975, when she married Samora Machel, the president of newly-independent Mozambique. Introduced to the world first in the role of politician’s wife, she soon revealed herself as an independent thinker and a strategist well worthy of her appointment as Minister of Education in her husband’s Marxist government.
Machel spent the first ten years of Mozambique’s independence in unflagging efforts to reduce the population’s 93% rate of illiteracy. Then, after resigning her post in 1986, she began to focus on the terrible toll that 20 years of unrest and economic stagnation had exacted from her country. Everywhere, there were ruined schools awaiting reconstruction; dilapidated clinics in need of rejuvenation, and overgrown fields to be cleared for the subsistence agriculture upon which most rural Mozambicans depend. And these were just the first few items on the long list of Mozambique’s woes. As an uneasy, tense peace came at last in the early 1990s, there were more than one million refugees to be coaxed home from neighboring countries, as well as a tragic tally of 250,000 war-damaged children to nurture and to rehabilitate.
A pragmatic woman who firmly believed that education is an essential first step to progress, Machel has spent a lifetime teaching. She has dispensed information and advice to school-children, to rural Mozambicans bent on improving their communities, and since the start of the 1990s, to an international community appalled by the toll that adult warfare had taken on the world’s children. To all Mozambican women and to many in foreign countries, the self-confident, compassionate Graca Machel is a revered role model—the quintessential Woman of 1990s Africa.
She was born Graca Simbine in 1945, in a country firmly under the colonial thumb of Portugal. The last of a family of six children, she made her first appearance in a rural area—a circumstance that could have doomed her to the sketchy and haphazard schooling deemed suitable for most Mozambican children. However, she was spared this burden of ignorance by her father’s foresight as well as by the post he had occupied as a Methodist minister. Though he died three weeks before she was born, he left
At a Glance…
Born 1945; married Samora Machel, 1975, widowed, October 19, 1986; two children. Education: University of Lisbon until 1972.
Career: FRELIMO school, deputy director; Minister of Education, 1975-1986; Foundation for Community Development, 1990: UNICEF study, 1996; Chairman of Mozambique’s National Organization of Children; President of the country’s UNESCO Commission.
Awards : University of the Western Cape, honorary degree, 1992.
explicit instructions that her older siblings were to see her through high school. After that, a church-based scholarship made it possible for her to attend Lisbon University in 1968, to major in romance languages.
In company with college students from around the world, Machel found that living away from home broadened her outlook. Every day she met people from Angola, Guinea-Bisseau and other Portuguese colonies, with whom she could compare notes and plunge into lively but strictly forbidden discussions about anti-government issues. “We had to pretend that we were having parties, and play the music very loud and pretend we were dancing,” she told The Christian Science Monitor in 1990, “but we were talking about politics,” she added. The ruse soon came to an end. Always on the lookout for political troublemakers, the Portuguese secret police pounced on the group in 1972 and dispersed it forth-with. Machel was forced to abandon her education and flee to Switzerland to escape the prison sentence that was almost certainly waiting for her in Mozambique.
In 1973, while she was in Europe she joined the Marxist-based Mozambican Liberation Front (FRELIMO). The most efficiently organized of several resistance movements, 11-year-old FRELIMO was steadily gaining ground in the struggle against colonialism. News bulletins coming out of Mozambique that year noted that Portuguese military casualties were mounting. Other chronicles focusing on Portuguese Army activities mentioned the construction of fortified villages in Cabo Delgado Province, to which 262,000 rural people had been moved in a fruitless attempt to keep them away from growing FRELIMO influence. These events plus several others on the lengthening list of army defeats made it impossible for Portugal to underestimate the seriousness of the situation, especially since FRELIMO had made their purpose clear some months earlier by massacring 82 anti-Marxist village headmen.
None of these successes could have been achieved without assistance from foreign governments. North Vietnam, Bulgaria and Libya were all happy to contribute money, arms and troop training, while the Communist governments of China and Russia buttressed their gifts of these necessities with unheard-of luxuries such as school scholarships and support for the FRELIMO cause at the United Nations. Closer to Mozambique itself were the helping hands of sympathetic neighbors. President Kaunda of Zambia contributed a FRELIMO base camp, while President Nyerere of Tanzania, taking advantage of the dense forests and the steep cliffs on his border with Mozambique, set aside several suitable places for exclusive FRELIMO use.
By the early 1970s, when Graca Machel arrived in Tanzania from Europe, she found an efficiently-run FRELIMO headquarters operation, as well as storage facilities, supply routes, and two training camps, one run by Chinese instructors, the other by Russians. Assigned to one of them, she went through a military training so thorough that she has never forgotten how to take an assault rifle apart and put it back together.
Once ready for action, she spent a short period in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgaso Province, which she later recalled as the place where she met Samora Machel, the FRELIMO commander who would become her husband. Her next assignment sent her to Bagamoyo, Tanzania, to become deputy director of the FRELIMO school. This was an important responsibility, since one of FRELIMO’s top priorities was to make sure every Mozambican enjoyed the right to learn, and thus to grow. By the end of 1974, when the battle for Mozambique finally ended in a FRELIMO victory, Graca Machel had been in active service in Tanzania for a little more than two extremely busy years. It was a key period, and it shaped the direction of her future.
On June 25, 1975 with the flag of an independent Mozambique fluttering from a Maputo flagpole for the first time, Samora Machel took his place as president. Joyously present was his fiancee, Graca, who was looking forward to a September wedding at which Presidents Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania were to serve as their best men.
Marriage brought Graca Machel a multitude of new roles. As wife of the president, she was expected to appear at her husband’s side on demand, in order to show strength and unity. She also became a willing stepmother to her husband’s five children by his first companion, Sorita, and his first wife, Josina, who had died of leukemia in 1971, after scarcely two years of marriage. Life suddenly became hectic, and the pace quickened even more after her own two children were born.
But her duties did not stop there. By virtue of her teaching experience in Tanzania, she was also appointed Minister of Education to the new government, and her many household responsibilities paled by comparison with the mammoth task facing her in her work. Her overarching challenge, she knew, would be to provide a jumpstart for the educational system, which had largely ground to a halt because so many teachers had fled the country after the Portuguese surrender in April, 1974. Unfortunately, merely restarting the system would not benefit all Mozambicans—only the assimilados, those tribal people willing to forsake their tribal traditions and languages in favor of a complete switch to Portuguese culture.
Even bigger changes were necessary to educate the more traditionally-minded rural Mozambicans, who had been subjected to the inferior education that would keep them subservient enough to provide a cheap labor source. For them, existing textbooks would have to be scrapped; certain subjects, such as history, would have to be completely redesigned to reflect the truth and to record Mozambique’s latest events. And parents, in need of an education as well as their children, must be encouraged to come to classes held at night, so that the appalling 93% rate of illiteracy could be deflated as quickly as possible.
These priorities were tackled so swiftly that the tireless Minister of Education was able to shave the illiteracy rate to 72%—a stunning victory. Machel was pleased, but she knew that these efforts were, at most, just band-aids. Granted, classes were available, but they had not been properly planned; teachers were present, but many were not properly trained, and curricula, while in use, were makeshifts at best, which had been cobbled together for temporary use until more thorough preparation could take place at government level. Looking back on these hastily-assembled measures in 1985, she told the Times Educational Supplement: “we needed to know better what our aims were, and the real condition of our human resources.”
By 1980, with the right to education clearly set forth in Mozambique’s new constitution, there had been enough time to visualize these aims clearly, and to set them crisply forth in an ten-year educational plan called the Prospective Plan (PPI) for the 1980-1990 Decade. New stipulations were to include, by 1989, provision for a seven-year primary school span; the official introduction of adult education, and most importantly, a clearly-designated method of training the teachers who would be leading their students along a new nation’s educational highway.
Well-meaning and democratic as the ten-year plan was, it foundered on the shoals of several almost insurmountable obstacles. One, between 1979 and 1981, was the worst drought Southern Africa had ever suffered. Because the parched land gave many farmers no crops at all, food aid had to be sought from overseas. Hunger for food prowled all of Mozambique, overtaking by far the growing thirst for education, and prompting people to leave their homeland.
Yet another problem, which arose in 1976, almost as soon as the Machel regime had been installed, was the rise of an anti-government movement known as the Resistencia Nacional Mocambicana, or RENAMO. Made up of vehement anti-Marxist forces and Machel’s enemies purged from the government, RENAMO participants were trained and armed initially in Ian Smith’s collapsing Rhodesia. When Mugabe’s government was installed in 1980, South Africa took over where Rhodesia had left off, undertaking to train RENAMO fighters in order to punish Mozambique for sheltering members of the anti-apartheid African National Congress.
Profoundly disappointed, Samora Machel watched his dream of education for all wither before his eyes. Hoping he could resurrect it by neutralizing the RENAMO swath of destruction, he decided to sign a pact with South Africa, by which South Africa agreed to cease their support of RENAMO if Machel would stop sheltering the anti-apartheid African National Congress. The agreement called the Nkomati Accord was signed into law in March of 1984, but neither side kept their side of the bargain.
These setbacks did not deter the energetic Graca Machel from trying to achieve her goal of educating as many Mozambicans as possible. But the zest went out of her job on the night of October 19, 1986, when her world turned upside down. A Tupolev aircraft flying back to Mozambique from a summit meeting in Zambia strayed 37 degrees off course, to fly over the Lebombo Mountains that form the Mozambican boundary with South Africa. Then, mysteriously, it crumpled against a hillside on the South African side of the border. There were 34 passengers killed in the crash. Among them— Samora Machel.
Graca Machel was devastated. Pictures of the Machel funeral show her bowed over her husband’s casket, prostrate with pain. “His death was so unexpected, and it was in such a violent way,” she recalled for Ebony. In the company of many other sympathizers, jailed South African activist Nelson Mandela and his then-wife, Winnie, sent warm condolences for the loss of Samora Machel. Machel replied as soon as she felt able to do so. The newspaper Scotland on Sunday quoted her reply, “Those who have locked up your husband have killed mine,” she wrote to Winnie Mandela, “They think that by cutting down the tallest trees they can destroy the forest,” she added.
The “forest” continued to grow, but Graca Machel felt she had given whatever she could to her government post. She was now a widow with the solitary responsibility of bringing up her family alone, and she felt it was time for a change of scene. Soon after her husband’s death she resigned her post as Minister of Education, leaving behind a sterling record—1.5 million children in school, as against 400,000 when she had arrived.
By 1989, the world had changed. The influence of Communism had waned, and Russia’s government was now looking towards democracy and capitalism rather than to grim devices like the Berlin Wall, in order to rule its people. Worn out by 14 years of impoverished rule, President Chissano of Mozambique joined the world in turning to capitalism.
The new regime brought Machel many fresh opportunities to provide community service in her favorite way— by education. One of her most successful efforts started in 1990, when she and a group of friends founded the Foundation for Community Development. An organization offering technical help and funds to communities bent on building local schools and clinics, the Foundation also dispensed grants to shore up the tourist industry by repairing game parks and other attractions damaged during the war. Even more importantly, the Foundation is there to inspire newly-hopeful Mozambicans to reach both forward towards self-reliance in the modern world, and backward, to take pride in their ancient tribal heritage.
In 1990, the Christian Science Monitor noted that 750,000 children had died in the war in Mozambique, and at least 250,000 had been orphaned. The United Nations soon added to these tragic figures the shocking information that children as young as ten years old were being used as soldiers, not only by RENAMO forces in Mozambique, but also in Liberia, in Bosnia, and in several other war-wracked countries of the world, despite explicit Geneva Convention rules forbidding the use of fighters younger than 16 years of age. Aware that these juvenile “veterans” had certainly suffered profound emotional and physical injury, the United Nations quickly ordered an international research project geared not only to assessing the trauma, but especially towards helping these young victims of adult power-mongering to put the past behind them, so that they could look towards a reasonably happy and productive future.
In her twin capacities as chairman of Mozambique’s National Organization of Children and president of the country’s UNESCO commission, Graca Machel was asked to chair this study. The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, published by the UN on November 11, 1996, yielded no surprises. As expected, the four-year-old ceasefire agreement between the Mozambique government and RENAMO had done nothing to ease the fear and insecurity that were obviously plaguing the young RENAMO veterans. As children often do when trying to cope with situations beyond their comprehension, they suffered constantly from nightmares, bedwetting, plus silence, where chatter and laughter should have been.
Interviews with these children, conducted as gently as possible by researchers, showed them to be the victims of a grisly variety of atrocities. Some had been kidnapped and drugged. Others bore deformities with which they would have to live with the rest of their lives; hacked off lips, beating-scarred bodies, and arms or legs blown off or maimed by landmines. Even worse were their emotional scars, caused, in several cases, by RENAMO commands to kill their own parents, so that they would then have no qualms about killing again.
Machel’s recommendations for rehabilitation called on UNICEF to begin resettling all displaced children, and to start funds specifically for their re-education. Other remedies, suggested not only by her report but also by others, recommended rehabilitation measures designed to include the beliefs of local communities. Because so many rural Mozambicans still believe implicitly that ancestral spirits punish those who murder their parents, purification rituals are often used. Foster parents also help considerably, as do great amounts of patience and love.
Machel’s report also focused on landmines. The report, noting that international law had not yet found a way to abolish the estimated two million mines still buried all over the country, endorsed the idea that humanitarian mine clearance should become a routine part of all peace agreements, and that the countries which have profited from the manufacture and sale of these lethal weapons should bear the huge cost of their removal.
As if all these achievements have not been enough to pack Graca Machel’s hours, romance has also become a part of her life in the 1990s. The lucky man is Nelson Mandela, president of neighboring South Africa, whom Machel has known since her husband’s death. The friendship between the two deepened in 1991, when African National Congress head Oliver Tambo died, passing his position as Machel’s children’s godfather on to Mandela. The following year there was another meeting at the University of the Western Cape, where Machel received an honorary degree. To date, the couple have no plans to marry, but both stress that this is a long-term romance, as well as a surcease from the grim world of landmines, deformed children and poverty.
Mozambique —a Tale of Terror, Told by Ex-Participants of Renamo and Refugees, African-European Institute, n.d.
Johnston, Anton, Education in Mozambique, Swedish International Development Authority, 1984.
Munslow, Barry, ed. Samora Machel: An African Revolutionary, Zed Books, 1985.
Africa Report, July-August 1988, p. 33.
Chicago Tribune, July 10, 1987.
Christian Science Monitor, May 3, 1990, “People,” p. 13.
Ebony, May, 1997, p. 118.
National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 1997, p. 12.
New York Times, November 3, 1996, 1, 3.
Scotland on Sunday, November 17, 1996, p. 23.
The Economist, August 5, 1995, p. 42.
The Lancet, September 16, 1995, p. 72.
The Times Educational Supplement, October 11, 1985, p. 18.
Foundation for Community Development, Maputo, Mozambique.
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