The personalities of Nelson Mandela and Samora Machel are larger than life, attempting to even eclipse the adage that behind every great man, there is a woman. Where most casual observers of historical events might read that Gracia took Winnie’s man, love recalls a different memory. If only for that moment; destiny froze and history preserved a seemingly impenetrable bond between Winnie Mandela and Gracia Machel, brought to the fore by genuine struggle. It was all during a time when Mozambicans and the world reeled in shock at the mysterious and untimely murder of Samora Machel.
The love and mutual admiration shared by the two women, was as intense as the hate that sought to destroy their respective loves and lives. The capacity to love, especially in the face of adversity, remains singly the greatest revolutionary human endeavor, even as it eludes us all so today. Following the news about the fateful plane crash on the 20th of October in 1986, there was an outpour of sympathy sent to Gracia and the Machel family. Freedom loving people all over the world respected and honoured Samora. Nelson and Winnie sent a telex message to the Machels after being refused permision to attend the funeral. Nelson from his prison cell in Pollsmoor and Winnie from her house-arrest home in Soweto; the fervor and sincerity of their words were palatable. “Never before have we made application to leave South Africa. Today we believe our place was to be with you physically. Each one of us is imprisoned in different jails. We were prevented from being present with you today to share your sorrow, to weep with you, to lighten your grief, to hold you very close”. In a direct responce to that, Gracia replied; “How can I express my admiration for you both? Your suffering has been long and terrible but still you took the trouble to console me in my time of grief. From within your vast prison you brought a ray of light in my hour of darkness”. The grace of Gracia, that even perhaps during the most painful hours of her life, never lost herself in her own pain long enough to forget the pain of others, even as the tragedy of Samora death must have devastated her.
Of all the condolences, Gracia was moved the most by the words of the Mandelas. “In a garden there is always one flower more beautiful than the others. Your letter is that flower in the great garden of messages of comfort I have received. On the behalf of my children and my whole family I would like to thank you for your letter, which was, to me, a comradely embrace to soothe my aching heart”.
Winnie, as a fellow freedom fighter in her own right, her stature is especially noted by Gracia. To Gracia, as it was with most of us at the time, Nelson was the mythical figure who kept our dreams for freedom aflame. As a fellow freedom fighter and wife to another galant son of Africa, Gracia identified more with Winnie in her letter. The two women shared an affinity the two nation countrys have not privy to, they lived the same lives. Gracia begun her responces to the Mandels by first addressing Winnie as her “dear sister”. Gracia joined the Frelimo armed forces as a university graduate. She always admired Winnie’s political convictions and courage. “I was only a child, Winnie, when you first raised your fists against apartheid. Since then you have never wavered. I wish I had your strength and courage. In this painful hour I look for inspiration in your example”. Earlier in her letter, Gracia expresses her high regard for Winnie. It is telling of a lived and shared experience of Black woman, a warrior by her own definition, who loved a bold Black man who dared to fight for a righteous cause, an endevour that would and could very well one day violently claim his and or her life and children. Winnie and Gracia belong to a small and shrinking circle warrior wives, wives like Amy Garvey, Pauline Lumumba, Betty Shabazz…. Now it appears as though Black men have lost their reason to fight and Black women have in turn have lost their will to love. It remains a struggle to love. Today, to love, is revolutionary. Warriors have lost their pursuit for the restoration of love and beauty. If it remains the duty of every revolutionary to make revolution, then where is the love. Where are the revolutionaries? Has the blood-seed of our great African leaders all fallen on barren land?
Much has happened since Samora’s passing. Much also has stayed the same, if not regressed, only because the capacity to love and let love love remains aloof from many of us. What was written will be played out on the great stage of life. What is to be will be. From somewhere in her pain Gracia wished and willed to meet Winnie; “either along the path of struggle or on that magnificent road to freedom, and then, looking into your eyes, I shall be able to express my full gratitude”. That is yet to happen, Nelson and Samora are yet to meet even only in spirit. Possibly, perhaps according to African spirituality, Mandela and Machel will never embrace so long as Winnie and Gracia remain estranged.
In her closing paragraph Gracia aptly writes; “The paths of freedom are long and torturous”. Much has happened since Samora’s passing. Much also has stayed the same, if not regressed, only because the capacity to love and let love love remains aloof from many of us. What was written will be played out on the great stage of life. What is to be will be. From somewhere in her pain Gracia wished and willed to meet Winnie; “either along the path of struggle or on that magnificent road to freedom, and then, looking into your eyes, I shall be able to express my full gratitude”. That is yet to happen, Nelson and Samora are yet to meet even only in spirit. Possibly, perhaps according to African spirituality, Mandela and Machel will never embrace so long as Winnie and Gracia remain estranged. However in the same closing paragraph, the surity of Gracia is consoling; “But victory will come one day . It is for this victory that Nelson Mandela is making his sacrifice. For this victory that Samora gave his life
This distinct moment in history, although not rare, is exemplary. At a time when peoples’ liberation struggles, from concept to relative completion, have consistently betrayed the women’s question, Winnie and Gracia broke a bread of compassion together, thus making their contribution to the legacy that women freedom fighters have struggled and created for themselves. These women hold up the other half of the sky. Without them, our horizons will remain skew. Gracia, evidently strengthened, perceptively closes her letter. In the test of time history remembers her-story, her humble contribution, and her dignified sacrifice. It records a legacy in African liberation struggle. “Fighters never say goodbye.”
AMANDLA! ALUTA CONTINUA!”
Nhlanhla Hlongwane [(BA) Political Science & Communications, (MA) Media Studies] is a Freelance Filmmaker (Director, Camera person) and Writer. He is www.kush.co.za editor and a founding member of Kush Kollective.