Graça Machel, alias Madam Mandela: 'Me, President? Never! I know too much!'

At the age of 52, Graça Machel for the second time in her life became First Lady. In 1986, her first husband, president Samora Machel of Mozambique, died in a suspicious plane crash. Today Graça is married to Nelson Mandela who has ninety candles on his birthday cake this year!
At the end of April, Machel received an honorary doctorate at the University of Ghent, amongst others for her struggle for woman and children’s rights.  On request of the UN-General-secretary at that time, Boutros Ghali, she wrote a report in 1996 about the impact of war on children. The report led to the permanent presence of children’s rights on the international agenda and also to concrete recommendations, amongst others sending out peace missions.  The issue of child labor was also raised.
Are child soldiers still recruited in 2008?
Graça Machel: The amount of child soldiers fighting in conventional forces has increased drastically.  Nowadays, nations know that they are severely followed up on this issue, so they took the necessary measures.  I don’t say that soldiers below 18 years old no longer get recruited, however one can see a drastic decrease compared to earlier days.  Unfortunately, our efforts have had no impact on informal armies.  Such armies don’t have to justify their actions to anyone and that shows.  It is almost impossible to find out what exactly those forces are doing in the bush.
Also Darfur is a hell for children.  Will the ethnic violence ever come to an end in Sudan?
Graça Machel: The conflict in Darfur is not based on ethnicity.  It has nothing to do with language or the color of the skin.  In Sudan, often it is hard to figure out who is Arab and who is African.  Most of the people don’t look like either.  Sometimes people speak a different language, however that is not the core of the problem.  In this case, the issue is about exclusion.  The central government in Sudan has never succeeded in giving all the Sudanese people the feeling of belonging.  The conflict in Darfur results out of this as does the conflict between North and South Sudan. The violence doesn’t stop, and also in the east of Sudan the situation is ready to explode.
How should the international community handle the crisis in Darfur according to you?
Graça Machel: They should realize that Sudan will never be safe and stable as long as big parts of the country stay deprived of a voice and the right to the wealth of the country.  This is what it is all about.  The international community should try to get round the attempts by the regime of Khartoum to slow down the process, in order to create a final solution.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement [The peace agreement that ended the civil war in 2005 between the north and the south of the country - editor] is of major importance and needs to get implemented, at least the part about the organisation of a census.  If everybody is taken into account during that census, honest and free elections are possible.  This in itself would already make a major difference.  This would finally enable civilians to express their opinion.  On condition that the elections are free and that the results get released.
Do you refer to the situation in Zimbabwe? 
Graça Machel:  Yes, but I don’t want to go any deeper on that subject.  The point I want to make is that elections, even in the case of Kenya, often run free and honestly.  That’s exactly why almost nine million people went out voting.  Also in Zimbabwe, the voting itself was not problematic.  The way the results are handled afterwards is another issue.  The elections ran well and we should honor the people of Zimbabwe for that.  They voted in a peaceful and orderly way.  They were  millions who voted, a proof that they believe in democratic elections.  That is more than one can say about people in the West who often don’t come out of their houses for the polls. 
 In the mean time Zimbabwe faces a civil war.
Graça Machel: I hope it will not come that far.  Don’t underestimate the pressure that is being exercised.  Nobody wins with a violent ending of the situation.  We still hope that the results will be released and that inside as well as outside Zimbabwe mechanisms get set up in order to prevent violence, no matter what the results of the elections may be.  At this moment the opposition is very busy arguing their case with state leaders abroad.  There is pressure coming from local people as well as from neighboring countries and from the international community.  We have to strive together in order to prevent this ending in a violent conflict.
South-African president Thabo Mbeki is remarkably silent about the crisis in his neighboring country Zimbabwe. 
Graça Machel:  Raising your voice is not what counts.  Well, it is not the only thing.  On the other hand, it should be acknowledged that Thabo Mbeki is a big part of the reason why the latest elections in Zimbabwe proceeded differently and more honestly than the former one.  Mbeki negotiated between the government and the opposition and helped with the drawing up of a new voting law.  It is exactly this law that ensured the display of the results at the police office, therefore there was no ground for voting fraud.  The results were visible and confirmed by the different political parties.  But what can one do when the voting commission isn’t willing to release the results?  This is not South Africa’s problem, but an internal matter.  Nobody can force the commission.  Sometimes we have the inclination to overestimate the potential impact of international pressure. One cannot just invade Zimbabwe and – with weapons ready to attack – shout: ‘Release the results!’
Is lobby work behind the scene – like you do with the group Global Elders – more significant?
Graça Machel: The Elders is constituted out of a small group of people who, through the years, have build up a moral authority, a moral standing.  People like Desmond Tutu can sit next to anybody even though he doesn’t necessarily represent something or someone.  The fact that the Elders don’t talk in the name of a country, institution or government, means that we have no interests to defend.  That is why people are more likely to listen to us.  If a government would do the same, the party at the other side of the table would always think: ‘What is the hidden agenda?’ , ‘Will I have to return a favour?’
I am not saying that we will solve every problem of this world let alone that we are capable of doing that.  However we don’t want to wait with our arms crossed like a bunch of old people until everything comes right on its own.  Sometimes we succeed in what we aim to do.  For example the case of Kenya.  Two Elders were involved in the negotiations that led to a solution. 
How did they contribute to that?
Graça Machel:  What we do, is talk to those people.  We give them the opportunity to express their fears and worries.  Then we help them to approach the conflict in with everyone’s interests in mind.  We facilitate dialog.  Off course it helps when conflict situations from other places in the world are brought up.  For example in the Kenyan crisis, Koffi Annan called in a negotiator who was involved in the creation of the coalition in Germany. Germany was one of the examples used at this negotiation to illustrate how a formula of power sharing can be achieved without spilling blood. 
Sudan, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mozambique… How come leaders are taking the people who brought them to power so little into account?  In your mother country Mozambique, president Guebuza seems to gather shares in an innumerable private companies, while a lot of his compatriots are living in poverty and are unemployed.
Graça Machel: I don’t know anything about Guebuza’s shares.  It is rumor and I don’t discuss rumors.  What you mention in your question, is not typically African.  It is visible everywhere in the world: Asia, Latin-America.  It seems to be part of our human nature.  When social institutions are weak, leaders cling to power and appropriate the state for themselves. That’s in fact why democratic institutions have such a huge importance.  Those don’t stop this happening in countries like in Belgium. However here, in Belgium, the government doesn’t get away with it because there are laws, institutions, academics and journalists who prevent this from happening. 
Since the end of apartheid in South Africa, a few extremely rich people have arisen, referred to as the big five – mostly key figures of the ANC that today are extremely rich.
Graça Machel: Today, in South-Africa, the middle class is growing much faster than in any other country.  Locally they are often referred to as the black diamonds.  However, in the West, this message is seldom presented. They always talk about the five persons that became extremely prosperous.  I am sure that also in Belgium, there are families who have huge amounts of money.  It exists everywhere.  The question to ask is wether these people are sharing their wealth.  The super rich like Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa, do they give enough back to society?  I don’t have the answer.  What South Africa needs is a conscientious elite who is able to share its richness with the masses.
The gap between poor and rich stays very big in the Rainbow Nation.
Graça Machel: That’s right, however the end of the apartheid regime was quite recent.  In a child’s life a period of ten years can be a lot, however, in the history of the country it is not long at all.  Despite this short period, millions of South Africans got access to education, health-care, drinking water, housing and electricity.  Indeed, millions are still living in poverty, however it is impossible to undo what centuries of apartheid have established.  And there is more. When one goes to Johannesburg, Cape Town or Kwazulu Natal these days, one crosses whole areas where only French or Portuguese is spoken.  How come?  It is the huge mass of illegal refugees living in those areas.  While our country is fighting in order to provide its inhabitants with decent services, it has to struggle against the massive stream of refugees out of the rest of Africa.  Today alone, about 3 million Zimbabwe refugees are living in South Africa.  They are a huge burden for our social services. 
You commute between South Africa and Mozambique.  Some observers expect your coming up for the presidency in Mozambique.  You are very loved and the name Machel still means something good to the people.
Graça Machel:  I am not interested in the presidency.  I stood very close to power being married with Samora Machel and then with Nelson Mandela.  I know what it asks to be a president and I don’t like it.  I really don’t like it.  Not so much the physical or mental demands, much more the game that is played.  The game of politics… Maybe I know too much.  I try to be effective on my own modest way and I feel fine that way.  I prefer to keep it that way. 

’ Ensuring women rights always takes a longer time’
Graça Simbine (63) was an early member of the Mozambican liberation movement  Frente de Libertacao de Mocambique (Frelimo).  During the independence of Mozambique in 1974 she becomes a first lady for the first time.  She was appointed as a minister and got married to Samora Machel, who became president.  On the 19th of October 1986, the charismatic freedom fighter died in a suspicious airplane crash.  The South African apartheid regime was suspected to be behind the crash.  Mozambique welcomed ANC leaders against the will of the South African regime.  Therefore they supported the Renamo rebels in Mozambique, who fought a 16 year long bloody struggle against Frelimo.
After Samora’s death, Machel stayed on for three more years as the minister of Education and Culture.  In 1998 she married Nelson Mandela.  At that time Madiba was already eighty years old and was soon to disappear from the political front.  However Graça was only 52 and not yet ready for pension.  The first lady turned out to be more and more a leader in the struggle for woman and especially children’s rights.
Being Mozambican, she knows very well what she is talking about.  During the sixteen year long period of civil war, the terror movement Resistencia Nacional Mocambicana (Renamo) used child soldiers extensively.  Renamo kidnapped young Mozambicans, abused them and incorporated them in the fight against Machel’s ruling party Frelimo.  The sixteen year long civil war took about one million lives.  When Machel talks about this she becomes passionate.  Her long fingers make a fist and tap softly on the table.  ‘Why should I as a Mozambican woman be satisfied with 37 percent feminine members of parliament when 52 percent of all the Mozambicans are women?  That’s a mentality that needs to disappear! But ensuring women rights takes always a longer time.  We have to be patient, it takes time, we need to be tolerant.’

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