Woman Of Wonder

Four decades later, Graca Machel is still fighting for women and children across Africa

27 August 2020 - 06:00 By Batandwa Malingo
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Graça Machel.
Graça Machel.


There are many politicians who devote their lives to changing people's lives but no-one has come close to the devotion showed by Graca Machel in fighting for African women and children since becoming the only female cabinet member of Mozambique's first independent government in 1975, at 29.


She was appointed as the first education minister for Mozambique's first independent government in 1975, that same year she married then president Samora Machel. She became a stepmother to her husband's five children with his first wife, who had died four years earlier.

Throughout her decade as minister of education, Machel spearheaded the move to get children back in class after the country gained independence from Portugal.

According to Teaching Tolerance, between 1975 and 1985, Mozambique recorded about a 50% increase in male pupils and 35% increase in female pupils in its schools.

Her leadership was put under immense pressure when antigovernment forces who received funding from outside countries, including SA, targeted schools, destroying more than 1,800, and Samora mysteriously died in a plane crash in 1986.

Later that same year, Machel resigned as education minister, but she was just getting started on her work to preserve the rights of women and children.

When the conflict ended in 1992, she was involved in the process to return thousands of Mozambican refugees who had fled the country.

That same year, she was honoured with the Laureate of Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger from The Hunger Project.

Her work was noticed by the UN in 1994 and she chaired a study into the affect of armed conflict on children, which was released in 1996 and received global recognition.

She was honoured Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1997 and married to then SA president, Nelson Mandela, a year later.

Machel was appointed as the University of Cape Town's chancellor in 1999, a role she held for 20 years.

In 2007, Machel cofounded “The Elders” with Mandela and Desmond Tutu. The international organisation is a group of world leaders working on issues of peace and human rights. She has also shared her expertise with more than 10 international non-profit organisations.

Forty-five years after she was appointed an education minister in Mozambique, Machel is still using her voice, influence and power to promote and fight for the rights of the most vulnerable in society, women and children. In 2010, she founded the Graca Machel Trust, an organisation aimed at empowering women, influencing government policy and protecting children's rights in Africa.


The mother of two is the only woman in the world who has served as the first lady of two countries, Mozambique and SA.

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