Graca Machel was reluctant to marry Nelson Mandela
Her nickname was Jackie Kennedy
Mandela has said she made him bloom "like a flower"
Nelson Mandela once said his wife, Graca Machel, makes him “bloom like a flower.” Despite her reluctance to marry him at first, they’ve been inseparable since they tied the knot on his 80th birthday.
Here are 10 things to know about the woman who was at the international icon’s side to the very end.
She’s been first lady of two nations: Before she got married to the South African anti-apartheid icon, Machel was the first lady of Mozambique. Her husband, President Samora Machel, died in a mysterious plane crash in 1986.
She was much younger: When they got married in 1998, she was 52. But she says their advanced age made their relationship better. “We were grown up; we were settled; we knew the value of a companion, of a partner,” she says.
She separated the man from the icon: At the beginning of their relationship, Machel says, there was a conflict between the man she married and the world’s perception of him. “The aura around him was a bit confusing. But then I learned to live with it, in terms of separating the two,” she told CNN’s Robyn Curnow in a rare interview in 2008.
South Africa wasn’t always in love with her: Protective of their beloved Madiba, the nation did not warm up to a foreign first lady at first. She remained in the background at the beginning, and then slowly won them over with her loyalty and laid-back demeanor.
She has something in common with the Kennedys: In Mozambique, she was nicknamed Jackie Kennedy. Not just for her class and grace, but because of the tragedy that befell her husband while in office.
It wasn’t love at first sight: After they met, she was reluctant to marry him or discuss their relationship in public. But Mandela wooed her the old-fashioned way, occasionally giving his bodyguards headaches as president when he’d make unannounced stops to buy her chocolates.
She’s kindred spirits with Mandela: Machel has something in common with her freedom fighter husband. While living in Mozambique, she was outspoken against the Portuguese colonial government.
She’s qualified in her own right: She served as minister of education and culture in Mozambique for more than 10 years. She is especially passionate about youth education, and has served as an expert on children’s issues for the United Nations.
She’s Mandela’s third wife: Mandela was first married to Evelyn Mase, but their marriage ended in divorce. In his biography “Long Walk to Freedom,” Mandela has said Mase made him choose between family and politics. He later married Winnie Mandela, a firebrand who became his voice when he was in prison. After their contentious divorce in 1996, Mandela married Machel two years later.
Their wedding was private: Despite Mandela’s larger-than-life status, they got married on his birthday 15 years ago. Their wedding was a low-key event attended by close family and friends.