The Presidential Years

Yet even as these personal pains and deprivations mounted, a new relationship with Graca Machel had begun and with it a cat and mouse game with the media that mutated as the relationship developed to an uninhibited sharing of joy. At the same time he managed, with all the finesse applied to some of the most delicate aspects of the transition, the formal aspects of the relationship, and Graca Machel’s progression from Mozambican friend to South Africa’s first lady.

He had met Graca Machel for the first time in 1990 when he visited Mozambique after his release from prison, sealing a respectful friendship that had begun in 1986 when Mandela and Winnie Madikizela had sent Graca Machel a letter of condolence on the death of Samora Machel.

It was in in 1992, after his separation from Winnie Mandela, that a deeper relationship became something of an open secret amongst journalists, though they weren’t seen in public together, and neither of them either confirmed or denied it. When he announced in late 1995 that he was divorcing Winnie, media and public speculation about his relationship with Graca Machel became intrusive. Graca Machel insisted that she would not marry again: ‘I belong to Mozambique’. Mandela ducked the media question with grace and humour, standardly saying his culture prevented him discussing it with young people, or pretending to refer the question to her:

Women today are very sensitive to men expressing opinions on matters that involve them without consulting them. If she were here I would say to her, ‘What do you think my answer should be?’ Unfortunately she is not here. I think we should postpone that question for the moment when she will be with me.783

What he did though was gradually bring the relationship into public view and, as it were, gave it institutional form. From early1996 semi- public appearances together became the norm. In Paris the same year during an official visit to France, they shared a dinner at the ambassador’s official residence, after which his communication unit ‘leaked’ confirmation of the relationship; then more openly at Robert Mugabe’s wedding; and graduating in late 1996 to walking hand in hand along the streets near his home in the suburb of Houghton. In March 1997 she accompanied him on a visit to Asia as his ‘Official Companion’. Not long after that she became officially the first First Lady of democratic South Africa.

Those who worked closely with Mandela saw the relationship blossom at first hand. Parks Mankahlana was asked to find a photograph of Graca Machel. Fink Haysom, his legal adviser, recalls

. . .the morning that Madiba received a phone call. It was evident that he was having a very affectionate call to his girlfriend, Graca Machel, and I asked to leave the room, No, he insisted, I should stay there while he had his telephone conversation. And I remember thinking afterwards that he was in his own way so delighted with the relationship with Graca that he was almost boasting. He was really no different from any other love-struck teenager during those calls.784

In the same spirit, a note on what he did on 5 July 1997 says that at a party for Graca Machel’s daughter he ‘Danced together with Graca for the first time in our relation.’785

Religious institutions, in particular Archbishop Tutu, and of course the media, felt entitled to mount pressure for a wedding. And in 1998, Graca Machel agreed to marry Nelson Mandela.

The preparations were kept secret, and very few people were invited to the wedding. Not even Parks Mankahlana was told, leading him to assure journalists there was no wedding even as they gathered in force outside the house in which it was taking place. Mandela later defended Parks against the anger of journalists some of whom, absurdly, said his credibility was forever undone. Mandela explained that Parks ‘did not know. The only person who knew was Mbeki. ‘The fact that I did not inform him (led to him being) convinced that the (marriage) reports were completely untrue and I was not in a position to come out and say, “Look, you're wrong, we are actually planning to (marry).” He expressed his full confidence in Parks.786

Mandela had of course also separately informed his director-general, Prof Gerwel and his head of communications; but he had convinced them that the matter was so private and so sensitive that they didn’t utter a word to anyone else! He had also organised private coverage of the ceremony by Enterprise magazine, whose editor Jon Qwelane he had invited to the wedding.

The marriage was announced a few hours later by Thabo Mbeki to the guests assembled for Mandela’s 80th birthday party at Gallagher Estate near Johannesburg.

I have a very, very short announcement to make today and a very happy one: that President Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel got married this afternoon. The civil ceremony was conducted by the Chief Magistrate of Johannesburg. The couple were blessed yesterday by the Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris and the religious ceremony today was conducted by the Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church Bishop Mvume Dandala who was assisted by the Archbishop Desmond Tutu as well as Sheikh Nazim Mohamed, the President of the Muslim Judicial Council and Mrs. Nanchand of the Hindu faith. Mrs. Mandela will continue to use the name Graca Machel. And because of work that she still has to do in Mozambique, the President and the wife will continue to live in the way that they have up to now so she will not be moving out of Mozambique but they will be commuting as they have been commuting for some months now. I think that’s all.787

The next evening, at a dinner celebrating his 80th birthday, Mandela began his speech with words which it seemed he had been eager to utter in public – words which, for some years, he had been denied: