The Tale of Graca Machel

Written by: Esnala Banda

“Don’t underestimate the power of people. Our weakness is that we do not know how powerful we are – and we are not using the power we have as citizens. Go out there and organise, organise, organise. Mobilise mobilise, mobilise. We’ll get there."


Graca Machel has been known for many things. For her work as an international advocate for women’s and children’s rights, former freedom fighter and first Education Minister of Mozambique and as the only woman ever who has actually been the first lady of two nations.

Born on 17 October 1945 in Gaza, Mozambique, Graça Simbine Machel, was the last in a family of six children. Though her father died before she was born he set in place rules for her education encouraging that she be seen through high school by her older siblings. Armed with a scholarship, she set off to attend Lisbon University (Portugal) in 1968, to major in languages.

Politically active in her school years, she was forced to abandon her education and flee to Switzerland to escape the prison sentence from the Portuguese secret police. In 1973, she joined the Mozambican Liberation Front (FRELIMO), then based in Tanzania, an organised resistance movement that was steadily gaining ground in the struggle against colonialism from the Portuguese. 

In Tanzania she underwent military training spent a short period in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado Province, where she met Samora Machel, the FRELIMO commander who later became her husband.

In September 1975, she married Samora Machel, the first president of newly independent Mozambique and became stepmother to her husband’s five children by his first companion, Sorita, and his first wife, Josina, and gave Machel two more children of their own.

Ever advocates for education, FRELIMO set up schools in liberated territories and within their training camps in neighbouring Tanzania during their fight for independence. Graca actively participated in the armed struggle, and was appointed Deputy Director of the Frelimo Secondary School at Bagamoyo, Tanzania, in 1974.

When Mozambique became independent she became a member of Frelimo’s Central Committee and the Minister of Education and Culture. As Minister for Education until 1989, Graça Machel worked to implement FRELIMO’s goal of universal education for all Mozambicans. 

From 1975 to 1985, the number of students enrolled in primary and secondary schools rose from about 40 percent of all school-aged children to over 90 percent for males and 75 percent for females.

Machel is recognised for her dedication to educating the people of Mozambique, and for her leadership in organisations devoted to the children of her war-torn country. 

After President Machel’s death in 1986, she resigned from her post as Minister of Education, leaving behind a sterling legacy. In her years as Minister of Education, she was able to reduce the illiteracy rate by 72%.

Graca Machel has continued to strive for peace and has spoken about education, women’s rights and sustainable human development across various platforms. Her achievements include being a delegate to the 1988 UNICEF conference in Harare, Zimbabwe, and the President of the National Commission of UNESCO in Mozambique. She also was appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations as an Expert to Chair the Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, the first of its kind in the history of the United Nations. 

Graca Machel was awarded the  Laureate of Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger from the Hunger Project in 1992, and the Nansen Medal in 1995 in recognition of her contribution to the welfare of refugee children. 

In 2008, the University of Barcelona, awarded a Doctor Honoris Causa to Machel. She has served on the boards of numerous international organisations, including the UN Foundation, the Forum of African Women Educationalists, the African Leadership Forum and the International Crisis Group. Among her many commitments, she is Chair of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization Fund, Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, South Africa and a Panel Member of the African Peer Review Mechanism.

She married Nelson Madela in 1998 aged 52 and was with him until his demise.

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