Mandela finds romance in Mozambique Machel leads U.N. study, works to alleviate poverty

November 03, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MAPUTO, Mozambique -- Graca Machel settles at the conference table in her office here, asks an assistant for a cup of espresso and says, as nicely as such things can be said, that she will be glad to discuss her work but has no intention of talking about her relationship with President Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

Soon, however, she cannot seem to help herself. The very mention of his name brings on a girlish, conspiratorial grin. She laughs at her lack of resolve.

"Oh, all right," she says, with a mock sigh. "I thought that that part of my life was over, and here I am in love. There. I have said it."

Holding hands in Paris

In July, Mandela and Machel, the widow of President Samora Machel of Mozambique, were spotted holding hands in Paris.

Then, in August, he kissed her at a wedding in Zimbabwe, in front of photographers. Finally, after all the rumors, the couple went public in September, saying that although no wedding was planned, they would be spending two weeks a month together.

The woman Mandela has fallen for has an impressive list of credentials. She has a law degree and speaks fluent English, Portuguese and French. She was trained as a guerrilla fighter (she can strip an assault rifle and put it back together), and she spent 10 years as Mozambique's minister of education and culture. Under her stewardship, the number of children enrolled in school nearly quadrupled, to 1.5 million from 400,000.

She also has an easy grace and a self-deprecating sense of humor. Friends of Mandela's have said that the turning point for the couple was in 1992, when Mandela met Machel for the second time as she was receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. They say he was struck by her beauty and sensitivity to others. She says she does not remember what she said that so impressed him.

Machel, 51, is perhaps as well-loved in her country as Mandela, 78, is in his.

Her husband was killed in 1986 when his plane crashed just inside South African territory. Many Mozambicans believe the former white-led South African government engineered the crash because of Machel's aid to anti-apartheid activists. South Africa denied involvement at the time, but Mandela has said he will begin a new inquiry. Since Machel's death, his widow has remained devoted to his memory and to helping the poor.

Likened to Jackie Kennedy

She is sometimes described as Mozambique's Jackie Kennedy. She, too, was left with two young children to raise after the death of her husband, a hero of the movement for liberation from Portugal.

Now she heads a community development foundation and is the chairwoman of the United Nations' first study on the impact of war on children. It is scheduled to be made public on Nov. 11.

Downtown Maputo, still recovering from the ravages of a brutal civil war, has a few glossy office complexes. But Machel's office is not in one of them.

To get to her front door, which is heavily barred like all the others on the run-down block, one must thread one's way through dozens of vendors, with their meager offerings of Bic pens, soap and used clothing displayed on wooden crates. Machel said she draws her satisfaction from being "close to the people." Government work, she added, is too removed.

"Somewhere in the northern part of this country," Machel said, drawing a rough map on a note pad in front of her, "there are three villages, and we helped them with a kind of credit. Not money. But they needed two heads of cattle, a plow and a cart. As you can see, it is a small thing, but it made a difference in their lives.

"You can't do things for millions. But if you give five or 10 women a loan of $50, then you make it possible for them to dream, and that is so rewarding. My country is described as the poorest country in the world, but you can do something about being poor, and that's what we are trying to do."

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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