Partners in arms - and in love

This is the story of happiness that has emerged from tragedy and trauma. Nelson Mandela has endured the public humiliation of a failed marriage. Graca Machel has suffered much worse. Now they are together. By Mary Braid

The rumours have persisted for a year, rising every so often to tickle a nation in love with its 78 year old terrorist-turned-legend and president. But now the spray painters and tree carvers can get to work, for Nelson loves Graca, OK - and that's official.

This weekend, President Mandela and Graca Machel, widow of Mozambique's former president Samora Machel, at last decided to make public their romance. The couple, the South African Sunday Independent reported, have become intimate and plan to spend more time together, but do not intend to marry.

It has been a coy process: for 12 months there have been rumours, beginning during the president's divorce from his second wife, Winnie. Even as he faced the indignity of an open court statement about the emptiness and lack of intimacy in his marriage, it was reported that Mandela was already in love with someone else and had plans to remarry.

Mandela, or Madiba as he is affectionately known in South Africa, was characteristically tight-lipped about the speculation, being old fashioned and stiff about matters of the heart. The formidable Graca, 28 years his junior and described by her many admirers as possessing enough charm to warm any man's heart, was rather more straightforward. She denied the rumours outright. Widowed for a decade, she had no plans to marry Nelson, she said.

While the president apparently teased close friends about the veracity of the stories, Graca, as much of a heroine in Mozambique as Mandela is a hero in South Africa, was clearly irritated by the persistent speculation. A tireless advocate for the hundreds of thousands of children who have died and suffered Africa's wars, she would hold a UNICEF press conference to highlight a new report, only to find that all the journalists wanted to talk about was love and the president.

The rumours persisted. Mandela was reported to have made several clandestine visits to Mrs Machel's home overlooking the sea in the Mozambican capital of Maputo. Then five weeks ago South African press speculation reached frenzy point after Mandela finished his pop-star-like visit to Britain and headed for France. "Mandela's Paris Romance" screamed the headline in the Sunday Times with a strapline which claimed that the President and Mrs Machel had "held hands and embraced in the City of Love".

In what were described as their "first tentative steps into the public eye" they kept their joint appearance confined to a close circle of aides and diplomats. It was a highly significant development. Although private visits had been reported, this was the first time Machel had been with Mandela on official business. It was all very breathless, but the official "just good friends" line persisted as recently as a fortnight ago when the couple were reported to have attended together Africa's "mother of all weddings", the marriage of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Grace Marufu, his former secretary, 40 years his junior and the mother of his two "secret" children, watched by 20,000 close friends. The official line was that Graca was not the president's official partner at the wedding although they sat just one person apart. That did not stop the Zimbabwean papers speculating that the couple "harboured nuptial sentiments of their own".

The confirmation, while some time in coming, is rather sweet; love in later life for two monumental African figures, revolutionaries in separate but similar struggles for whom the white minority South African government became a common enemy.

Although they never actually met until 1991, their lives have been intertwined since Mandela's release from prison. During the president's years of confinement, Graca's husband Samora Machel made liberated Mozambique a haven for ANC guerrillas. That made the country and its capital Maputo, where many ANC supporters lived in exile, a target for covert operations and even authorised invasions from the South African security forces.

When Samora Machel died in 1986 in a plane crash Winnie and Nelson Mandela wrote jointly to his widow expressing their grief. Graca replied with a moving letter: "From within your vast prison you brought a ray of light in my hour of darkness." To Winnie she wrote: "Those who have locked up your husband are the same as those who have killed mine. They think that by cutting down the tallest trees they can destroy the forest."

As a mark of respect for Samora Machel's contribution to the South African struggle, Oliver Tambo, former president of the ANC, became godfather to the children Samora left behind. When Tambo died the responsibility fell to Mandela. Graca's daughter Jozina has been staying with Mandela in Cape Town for some months while studying at the city's university.

In South Africa few will frown upon the union. There was widespread sympathy for the president after his divorce. And while he is feted on the international stage, his personal life is said to be empty. A recent interview with the young housekeeper at his official Cape Town residence portrayed an essentially lonely man. Their relationship had been formal at first but latterly president and employee have become as close as father and daughter. Now she tucks him in bed every night before giving him his eye drops, for a condition caused by dust during his years of hard labour in the prison quarry.

Walter Sisulu, his old friend and Robben Island cellmate for more than 20 years, said recently that Mandela was essentially a family man and it had to be assumed that he was a lonely man since his divorce. Now that he has said that he will not stand as president again, and the grooming of deputy president Thabo Mbeki as his successor is well advanced, most South Africans would like to see an old man, who has made such a monumental personal sacrifice for his country, retire happy.

Apart from clearing the matter with his daughters, who are said to have had doubts about the new romance, Nelson's difficulties about making a public declaration were probably nothing compared to Graca's. Graca Machel has been described as Mozambique's Jackie Onassis. Like the former Mrs John F Kennedy, she was left with two children when her husband died and like her she came to represent a particular era in her country's history and the loss of political idealism and hope.

Just as with Kennedy, conspiracy theories still abound concerning the death of President Machel. On 19 October 1986, a jet carrying Machel and several cabinet members crashed into a hillside in Eastern Transvaal near the Mozambique-South African border, killing all 35 on board. An inquiry concluded that the Russian crew was tired and the aircraft low on fuel and that the jet took a wrong navigational reading. But there are allegations that Machel's aircraft was lured into the mountains by a false navigation beacon set up by South African security forces, which financed Renamo, Mozambique's rebel guerrillas, as part of the general policy to destabilise the country and Machel's Marxist government.Just a month ago, Graca said she intended to have the inquiry reopened and that she hoped the new democratic South African government would establish the truth.

Times have moved on. Frelimo is a different party now and Renamo's guerrillas have turned into politicians. But Graca's symbolic significance to her country remains much the same. "She just can't marry him," said one of her friends recently. "She belongs to Samora and to Mozambique."

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu heard news of the official confirmation this weekend he was as delighted as only he can be. And despite the statement from Mandela's office that the couple planned to spend two weeks of every month together in South Africa but not to marry, Tutu encouraged them to tie the knot. A year ago, when Mandela and Winnie divorced, Tutu was criticised for saying that the president needed a shoulder to cry on and someone to bring him his slippers.

Graca Machel is unlikely to be such a companion. And the man who chose - whatever her later shortcomings - the fiery, free-spirited Winnie, as his second wife, is unlikely to want one anyway. Despite his age - the joke is that two weeks in every four should be enough for a man of his advanced years - Mandela in his colourful, trademark Madiba shirts, still cuts a dash. In his youth he was a bit of a dandy and a ladies' man. That has not changed. He still loves women, showing particular concern for the comfort of female journalists.

His enduring and obvious liking for women is the cause of some amusement. Last week he opened his home to Peggy Sue Khumalo, the new Miss South Africa. The caption under the picture of the president kissing the beauty queen stated that the president had said he always liked to congratulate achievers personally.

In Graca Machel he has found a woman who has been exceptional all her life. In her 20s, she studied at Lisbon University, a remarkable achievement for a Mozambican woman of her day. She had conviction and revolutionary spirit, and eventually fled Portugal after threats from Salazar's secret police. She headed to Tanzania to be trained as a guerrilla against the Portuguese and was fighting for Frelimo when she met Machel.

Winnie Mandela is probably among the few South Africans unhappy with the union. When Graca's daughter Jozina moved in with Mandela, Winnie was said to be distraught, certain it meant that Mandela and Machel were involved. She told close friends she was worried that a new union would upset her daughters. But friends assume the upset is closer to home. "What right does she have to be so upset?" said a close friend. "She treated him with so little respect when he got out of prison. She could have had it all - travelled the world with him and basked in the glory - if only she had been a little more discreet."

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