Love unites stars of black struggle

Local heroes Graca Machel and Nelson Mandela
It must have been desperately hard for Graca Machel when her husband died. The plane crash which took the life of Samora Machel, the President of Mozambique, removed one of the most charismatic, intelligent and charming of all of Africa's post-independence leaders, a man whom even Margaret Thatcher found compelling and persuasive despite his Marxism. Perhaps it must have seemed, then, that no-one could ever take his place. But now, the news that has been gossip for the last five years has finally been confirmed: Graca is involved in a relationship with Nelson Mandela.

For months, officials have fenced and hedged when asked about the relationship between the widow of the President of Mozambique and the current President of South Africa, usually resorting to the formula that they were "just good friends". But yesterday, reports in South Africa's Sunday Independent claimed that they were in a "steady relationship".

"President Nelson Mandela is in love. After months of speculation, the Sunday Independent can now confirm that Mandela and Graca Machel ... are involved in a steady relationship and are ready to go public. The couple plan to spend as much time together as possible," the paper said. "They plan to spend two weeks of each month together at Mandela's Johannesburg home. Machel will spend the rest of her time in her home country."

Spokesman Parks Man-kahlana said: "All I can say is, the story is not untrue."

Graca Machel, 50, is a very popular and important figure in Mozambique. Known as a former Frelimo guerrilla and education minister as well as the widow of the man who brought the country to independence from Portugal, she has worked with the United Nations Children's Fund, headed a UN study on the impact of war on children and is an advocate of women's and children's rights.

The exact cause of the 1986 plane crash which claimed the life of her husband, Samora, was never precisely identified; but it has long been suspected that it was the work of either the South African Government or of terrorists operating on their behalf. It was this which was to bring her together with Mandela. Oliver Tambo, the former ANC leader, became custodian of Machel's seven children. Mandela took over that role in 1990; within two years, the first rumours about their relationship had started to circulate.

Mandela, 78, had had a tough time after coming out of prison in February 1990. Despite the international acclaim, his marriage to Winnie was already coming apart at the seams. He had married her in 1958, after divorcing his first wife, Evelyn. Just four years later, he was jailed for 27 years. By the time he emerged from prison, there were already many stories of her ruthlessness, her abuses of authority, her spending, and affairs. Finally, it came to divorce earlier this year, despite Winnie's efforts to prevent it. At the divorce hearing, the freedom fighter who had transformed South Africa said he was "the loneliest man in the world".

But at the very mention of Mrs Machel, his face is said to light up. Their meetings have been the talk of South Africa, with trysts rumoured to have taken place around the world, most recently at the wedding of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's Prime Minister.

So will they marry? Mr Mankahlana said yesterday: "I'm not aware of any marriage plans." He may feel a little reticent about recomitting himself so soon after ending one marriage, but Mr Mandela is a family man, and it may well be that they decide to tie the knot. It would be a great marriage, uniting not just two nations, but two heroes of the black liberation struggle in Southern Africa, brought together by the struggle against apartheid.