THE BLOG
12/16/2013 12:28 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

Graça Machel: The Heroine to Mandela's Hero

The heroine who guided Nelson Mandela through his last years -- the woman that gave him great happiness -- is Graça Machel. In the past seven days, first in Soweto then in Pretoria and finally in Qunu, even while tortured by grief, she stood tall, brave and dignified. In the last few months she has been at Mandela's side night and day as his health failed. She was with him as he died -- and her commitment to the same ideals that Mandela held dear ensures that the causes he held dear will live on.

When I was writing a book of essays, entitled Courage, highlighting the lives of people of outstanding bravery to raise funds for our children's charity, I talked to Nelson Mandela and to Graça and explained that I was planning to write a chapter on the two of them. Both had shown extraordinary fortitude and taken great risks for what they believed. Both had suffered greatly for their commitment. Both had endured years when their very lives were in jeopardy, both had lost loved ones as they pursued their cause. And both epitomised to me the virtue of courage, that what we admire is not just the daring and the willingness to risk all, qualities Mandela and Graça had in abundance but matching that strength of will strength of belief in something far bigger than yourself.

We all now know of Mandela's strength of will and belief: his defiance facing possible execution, his resilience even faced with a 27-year prison sentence often in solitary detention, his insistent demand from which he would not be moved that until everyone else went free he would remain in jail. But I wanted also to tell the story of Graça, the young leader who went into the bush in support of Mozambique's liberation, the teacher who schooled war ravaged kids in camps, the revolutionary who married the President of Mozambique, and then had to cope with his death, his aircraft shot down in suspicious circumstances in 1986. And the leader who was the country's Education Minister before and after he died, and who, even after her pain and suffering, had become the worldwide champion of children brutalised by conflict.

But it was, as always, Graça who insisted that it was not her who should be featured or receive attention -- and so the chapter on Graça is yet to be completed. But it needs to be written. Educated in a missionary school, she went to Portugal for her teacher training before realizing that there was no future for the children of her country unless they were truly free of Portuguese rule. After building the schools of an independent Mozambique, Graça -- using her experience as the teacher -- had compiled a major UN report demanding Security Council action to prevent violence against children. But Graça always stayed in the background and never pushed herself forward despite all her talents and skills. And throughout the 15 years since her marriage to Mandela in 1998 she chose to make her contribution at his side, Graça giving him, as he volunteered every time we met, the happiest of retirements. Meeting the two together you sensed the pleasure they had in each other's company, the warmth and tenderness to each other they shared, that was a joy to behold and of course, as time went on, the growing dependence that in his ailing health he had on her that was touching.

And yet what they achieved in these last years when he had left the presidency they achieved together -- bringing their two talents and two experiences to the shared cause of promoting children's rights. For when Mandela said that after ending apartheid, he had a second mountain to climb -- ending child poverty -- he meant it. But she and Mandela did much more, and here Graça came into her own on the world stage as the children's advocate and the defender of children in conflict. In 2005, both came to London to persuade finance ministers and central bank governors that debt relief was the way to release resources for children's education and health. Together in 2006 they launched in Mozambique Britain's $15 billion plan to help every child to get to school. During these years, refusing to rest or relax or retire, they worked hard to fight all aspects of child poverty, working through the Elders to address the evils of child marriage supporting 'Girls Not Brides.'

I was privileged to be present at what were for me wonderful, never-to-be-forgotten moments during their partnership. I remember the world celebrating Nelson Mandela's 90th with a concert to raise money for his great Foundation and children's causes; I had the honor of sitting next to him explaining to him as best I could -- and he was very interested -- who each of the young pop performers were and what made them popular. At one point, he wanted a drink. But he told me that Graça, worried that alcohol would imperil his already fragile health, had banned it and given him lemonade. I plead guilty to obtaining the banned class of champagne and helping him shield it from Graça's view.

My older son's birthday is on the same day as Graça's, and our younger son's was the day before Mandela's. And in recent years, cards and phone calls and also presents were exchanged every year. One such exchange led to what is called 'a minor diplomatic incident.' But so modest is Graça Machel, that she was probably pleased that the ceremony for the award we had given her -- the title of Dame of the British Empire -- turned from British pomp into farce. Paul Boateng, our South African High Commissioner, was to give her the large metal medal that goes with the Damehood. Indeed he had received a package from the Foreign Office in London -- and this was the signal to go ahead with the public ceremony for her installation as Dame. An audience of the best and the brightest were invited to the Commissioner's residence in South Africa. There and then, Paul opened and unveiled the package from London, but it turned out not to be Graça's medal but, covered in what seemed endless tinsel, a garish birthday present for Graça chosen by our three- and seven-year-old sons and kindly sent on by our Foreign Ministry. It was a handmade birthday card made specially by John and Fraser for Graça, lavishly decorated with a lot of glitter and sparkle. It was so large and well decorated it had been put in a box rather than an envelope, and when it came out of its box at the High Commissioner's reception in front of all the assembled guests, glitter and sparkly bits went everywhere. Not a fan of the pomp and ceremony associated with British honors, Graça had the last laugh.

Mandela received many accolades in his life time but the one I think both he and Graça valued most was the title of Children's Champion, and no one is better placed to be such a champion in future than Graça. Co-chair of the panel of Prime Ministers and Presidents pushing for universal education, already a patron of her own scholarships for girls in need of education, she is the person to remind us that successful as he was, Mandela's work for children was in his view never completed.

The summit of the second mountain Mandela wanted to climb has still not been reached, the mountain top not yet in sight. But this mountain, as Graça and he both told us, is not insurmountable. Mandela proved that the impossible is only not possible until it happens and he taught us that no injustice need last for ever. And with courage and determination from those who see child poverty as an outrage to be ended, and with Graça's continued leadership, the inaccessible pinnacle may not be inaccessible after all.