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Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel in 1998. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)
Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel in 1998. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

Mandela was lucky in love, the third time around Add to ...

After a lifetime of struggle and suffering and isolation, there came in Nelson Mandela’s 76th year an unexpected twist: He fell in love.

And he fell like a teenager. He pursued Graca Machel, the object of this new affection, with daily phone calls. He cajoled her to go to Johannesburg and see him, bargaining with her on how many days she would stay. And when he finally persuaded her to travel with him, he held her hand through summits and international tours, and planted a kiss on her at an official function in Zimbabwe that revealed their secret to the world.

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She was 27 years younger than he, a foreigner, a busy professional with little patience for the global spotlight in which he now lived. But like him, she had known struggle and immense suffering; she too had an unswerving dedication to the cause of justice.

When he fell for her, Mr. Mandela was in the second half of his presidency, newly and bitterly divorced from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. His second wife, the firebrand African National Congress activist who waged the fight for his release during his 27 years in jail, had become a woman he could not bear to be around, corrupt, autocratic and shadowed by murder allegations. He was resigned to being alone – and bitterly lonely, a space he tried to fill with time with his children, although after so long away from them those relationships were not easy either.

And then he met Ms. Machel – copper-skinned, much shorter than he, a woman of crystalline integrity and immense vivacity, whose hands flew when she described new ideas, in English that lilted with the inflection of her native Portuguese. And he fell hard.

“Madiba would just light up, stop what he was saying, when Graca walked in the room,” recalls Anurita Bains, a Toronto global health advocate who worked in Johannesburg as their assistant at their children’s foundation, early in their relationship. “They were a genuine, sweet, lovely couple in love.”

The focus on Mr. Mandela sometimes obscured how proud he was of Ms. Machel’s achievements, she said. “Of course, he’s Nelson Mandela – but she’s an incredible, powerful advocate in her own right, and they just found a way to be together and support each other in whatever the other was doing.”

No one but her

Mr. Mandela's first wife was Evelyn Mase, a nurse, and like him a Xhosa from a village in the Eastern Cape come to Johannesburg for work. They had four children, but early on the joy drained from their relationship. She resented his political activity with the African National Congress, became a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and divorced him in 1957.

Within a year, he had married the fierce and breathtakingly beautiful Winnie Madikizela. They had two daughters, but just four years later Mr. Mandela was sent away from them, to life imprisonment for treason. Ms. Madikizela-Mandela was his voice through all the years that the apartheid government would not let any image or word from Mr. Mandela be distributed, and the Afrikaner regime punished her harshly for it, with solitary confinement in jail and with house arrest in rural villages.

She and Mr. Mandela had just a handful of visits over the 27 years he was in jail. She was there holding his hand when he finally walked out of Victor Verster Prison, both of them with a clenched fist raised in the ANC salute, but he would say later that he felt she was a stranger. And she became a remorseless fighter, accused in the murder of young people suspected of collaborating with the government. They separated before he was elected in 1992.

Mr. Mandela and Ms. Machel met for the first time five months after his release, when he travelled to Mozambique in July, 1990. But they had been linked long before they met.

Mr. Mandela served as godfather to the children of another African resistance leader, Samora Machel of Mozambique. President Machel died in a mysterious plane crash over South Africa in 1986 – and from his prison cell on Robben Island, Mr. Mandela wrote his widow, Graca, an oddly prescient letter.

“Throughout the day we shall mourn with you a mighty soldier, courageous son, a noble statesman. We must believe that his death will strengthen your and our resolve to be finally free. … Our struggle has always been linked and we shall be victorious together.”

Ms. Machel was born in a village to illiterate parents, was a guerrilla in her country’s liberation war, and was named its first education minister (when the Portuguese colonizers left, illiteracy was at 96 per cent). She went on to a career at the United Nations, doing pioneering work on the impact of armed conflict on children.

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