Graça Machel: A Life of Advocacy and Empowerment

Chair of the Fund Board for the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization


Graça Machel is a true masterpiece of grace, leadership, and unyielding dedication to change. The only woman in modern history to have held the position of First Lady in two countries: South Africa and Mozambique.  As the widow of former Presidents Samora Machel of Mozambique (1975–1986) and Nelson Mandela of South Africa (1998–2013). Machel’s journey unfolds as an extraordinary tale of advocacy and empowerment.

A Brushstroke of Legacy

Graça Simbine was born on October 17, 1945, 17 days after her father’s passing. She was the youngest of six children in rural Incadine, Gaza Province, Portuguese East Africa (modern-day Mozambique).  From an early age, she recognized the transformative potential of education, and it shaped her desire for it. She attended Methodist mission schools before earning a scholarship to the University of Lisbon in Portugal. From Lisbon she studied German and initially engaged with issues of independence. Machel’s linguistic prowess also includes fluency in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, English, and her native Xitsonga language.

Personal Life and Tragedy

In 1975, Samora Machel, Mozambique’s first president, married Graça Simbine, and she dropped her surname and adopted his. Unfortunately, in 1986, tragedy struck when President Samora Machel died in a plane crash near the Mozambique-South Africa border. This loss set her on a new path of resilience, determination, and impact.

Machel’s second marriage, to Nelson Mandela on his 80th birthday in 1998, aligned her with the first post-apartheid president of South Africa. Mandela’s passing in 2013 marked another poignant moment in her journey. Unfortunately, her second marriage met the same fate. On December 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela died and left Machel widowed again.

Road to an impactful life

Graça Machel’s journey started with Mozambique’s independence. Machel was appointed as the country’s first Minister of Education and Culture on June 25, 1975. She assumed the role of an educator and champion of children’s rights.  She dedicated her energies to shaping a brighter future for Mozambique’s youth. Her tenure witnessed a remarkable increase in the enrollment of students in primary and secondary schools. About 40 percent of all school-aged children started school, with over 90% and 75% male and female intake, respectively.

Her sphere of influence broadened as she stepped onto the global stage of international diplomacy, advocating for women’s rights, education, and peace.

Graça Machel served in various organizations, including the University of Cape Town, the Commonwealth of Nations’ Eminent Persons Group, the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and the African Leadership University. Machel’s leadership also extends to her involvement in numerous organizations dedicated to conflict prevention, development, and education. She has lent her expertise to the UN Foundation, the Forum of African Women Educationalists, the African Leadership Forum, and the International Crisis Group, among others. Her enduring impact is evidenced by her almost decade-long tenure as Chair of the Fund Board for the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI). She was also an Eminent Person of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM).

Graça Machel is the Founder and President of the Foundation for Community Development (FDC), a Mozambican non-profit organization established in 1994. Through the FDC, she has empowered communities by enhancing their access to information and technology.  She fostered social and economic justice aiding the post-war reconstruction and development of Mozambique.

Achievements and Accolades

Graça Machel’s contribution in the civil space has been nothing but stellar, which saw her gain global recognition and reverence for her commitment.

Machel’s accolades include the 1992 Africa Prize for her contributions to eliminating hunger in Africa. She also received the 1995 Nansen Medal from the United Nations, recognizing her extensive humanitarian work, especially on behalf of refugee children. Queen Elizabeth II honored her with the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire title in 1997 for her contributions to human rights protection. Additionally, she received the Global Citizen Award of the New England Circle that same year.

In 1997, Queen Elizabeth II recognized her humanitarian efforts with an honorary British Dame title for her dedication to women’s and children’s rights.

Machel’s canvas merged with Nelson Mandela’s as she engaged in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

In July 2017, Machel became an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy (HonFBA). In 2018, she received recognition from the World Health Organization for her contributions to the health and well-being of women, children, and adolescents.

Graça Machel, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu convened The Elders in 2007, an initiative dedicated to working on critical global issues.  The group prioritizes areas such as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the Korean Peninsula, Sudan and South Sudan, sustainable development, and gender equality.

Graça Machel was orphaned at birth, widowed twice, but her commitment and desire to make a difference never withered. Her story serves as an ongoing call to action for us all.


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