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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

World Government Summit: To redesign life we must listen to young people, says Mandela widow 

Graca Machel told the Dubai summit that her husband had a firm belief that young people are the key to any nation's future

Graca Machel, wife of Nelson Mandela, speaking during the session The Mandela I Knew on the third day of World Government Summit 2018 in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
Graca Machel, wife of Nelson Mandela, speaking during the session The Mandela I Knew on the third day of World Government Summit 2018 in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

To change the world, we must listen to young people, the second wife of Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel, told the World Government Summit in Dubai on Tuesday morning.

“To redesign the table of life, you must begin with changing the mindset of society and listen to children and young people," she said, adding that all humans are created equal.

“There is no second class for human beings. We are all equal in the beat of life in thinking and potential.”

Speaking at a forum called The Mandela I Knew at the World Government Summit in Dubai, the former First Lady of South Africa talked of her work as an international advocate for women’s and children’s rights, and offered a glimpse into the personal and public life of her husband, Nelson Mandela, who died of pneumonia in December 2013, aged 95.

She found it difficult to talk of Mandela as a revered public figure , saying he was a husband and father first and that he too saw children as the key to the future of a nation.

“There were many common causes between us, including a love of children and a firm belief they should occupy space in political and social agendas.

“He wanted to put children first in the nation, but there is no single legacy from his life,” she said.

“Nelson had this gift to humble himself and to touch different classes of all people. He had this ability to connect with all people, from all backgrounds.

“He could see beyond the military and the politicians to resolve conflicts and disputes.”

When Nelson Mandela met his second wife Graca Machel it was the joining of two African figureheads.

One a freedom fighter turned national leader, the other a teacher and a champion of women and children.

Their union in 1998, whilst Madiba – Mandela's clan name – was South Africa's first post-apartheid president and eight years after he was released from his 27-year incarceration for conspiring to overthrow the state, was more than a meeting of minds and hearts, but also of souls.

“We were blessed with the fact that when Nelson stepped down from the state. He had time for his family and he could choose how he spent his time,” said Ms Machel, who is a former education minister from Mozambique and is visiting Dubai to promote the work of her trust.

Nelson Mandela was just like any other loving father, husband and grandfather – and would surprise his wife every day, often with chocolate gifts or late night phone calls to wish a pleasant night’s sleep if they were apart.

Graca Machel, humanitarian, ex-minister and chair of The Graca Machel Trust speaking in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
Graca Machel, humanitarian, ex-minister and chair of The Graca Machel Trust speaking in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

Ms Machel, 72, painted a vivid picture of their life together and the personal connection that laid the foundations for their loving union.

Eye contact was an important part of a first meeting with Mandela, she said, and he never took people for granted, treating cooks and servants with the same respect as the dignitaries he would meet on state visits.

“He gave a value to every gesture and recognised the dignity of every human being,” she said.

“That respect stemmed from his incarceration. He tried to find the human side of his captors, the Afrikaners who he would see every day.

“As soon as he had a realisation that armed conflict was not going to win, he softened his approach towards the armed prison wardens.”

The serenity and relative calm of Mandela’s presidency seems far removed from the political turmoil currently circulating in South Africa.

Mounting pressure on Mandela’s successor as leader of the African National Congress, Jacob Zuma, is expected to lead to his resignation, fuelled by claims of corruption and financial scandals.

The ANC is seeking to rebuild ahead of general elections in the country next year.

One regret held by Mandela during his early years as president was losing focus on the health crisis posed by HIV in the country.

His early years following election as South Africa’s first black president in 1994 were dominated by nation building and developing a democratic state.

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Ms Machel, whose trust aims to set the agenda for women in Africa, said her husband admitted to being "not awake at the right time" and that not tackling the HIV epidemic in rural South Africa was a "missed opportunity".

“When you love somebody, you respect their personality and character,” she said.

“You cherish their qualities and build that connection. You love who they are and there is an alignment of heart, soul and understanding.

“Ours was a relationship of equals, and we were comfortable with who we were."