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Who killed Mozambique’s Samora Machel?

It’s as if the Samora Machel Monument wasn’t meant to be found. After the turn-off from a well-marked highway between South Africa and Mozambique, the road to the site of the mysterious plane crash of Mozambique’s first president twists and turns for miles.



There are only a sparse handful of signs, so we turn to Big Brother Google for guidance and follow a map to Mbuzini, the town closest to the memorial to the president whose revolution changed Mozambique. Built at a cost of US$240,000 to the ANC government, the monument was declared a South African national heritage site in 2006, seven years after its inauguration by peace icon Nelson Mandela and former Mozambique president, Joaquim Chissano. Chissano ascended the democratic throne when, on their way back from an international meeting in 1986, Machel and 34 fellow passengers plunged to their deaths in the mountain range between South Africa’s Mpumalanga province and Mozambique, in circumstances that to this day remain a chilling whodunnit.

Chief Luitenant Samora Machel

Chief Luitenant Samora Machel

Machel took office as Mozambique’s founding president in 1975, after years of heading the country’s guerrilla movement FRELIMO in the struggle for independence from Portugal, and proceeded to lead the country through a tempestuous decade. He was a firm believer in armed struggle not as a means to an end, but as a means to the beginning.

“Of all the things we have done,” he said, “the most important – the one that history will record as the principal contribution of our generation – is that we understand how to turn the armed struggle into a Revolution …it was essential to create a new mentality to build a new society.”

Upon independence, Machel introduced sweeping reforms geared towards this new mentality. An ardent socialist, he nationalised all land and property, and spearheaded the establishment of public schools and clinics across the country. He also banned religion, provoking the wrath of international churches that had massive investments in the country.

By the end of 1975, most of the settler Portuguese population had left Mozambique in fear of violent retaliation for colonial crimes. They left a trail of malice in their wake, urbanites destroying industrial infrastructure, plantation owners burning crops and equipment as they abandoned their rural kingdoms.


Their abrupt and destructive exit threw the newly independent country into economic upheaval. The colonial system had excluded black people from most professional fields, ensuring that the technical aspects of industrial and agricultural production remained almost entirely in Portuguese hands. The colossal skills gap that followed the mass exodus – combined with acts of sabotage by the departing Portuguese – caused production to plummet, dealing a severe blow to the country’s finances.

Relations soured
The blow was worsened by changing patterns of labour and trade. Under Portuguese rule, Mozambique had provided huge amounts of labour, as well as two-way trade, to South Africa and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), ensuring a constant stream of revenue to the colonial government. Relations with both countries soured as soon as FRELIMO took charge, and within a year of independence, historian Tony Hodges reported, recruitment of Mozambicans to South Africa’s mining sector had decreased from nearly 2,000 a week to less than 400 a week.

The South African and Rhodesian governments, galled by Machel’s socialism and by the support he provided to liberation movements in those countries, reacted further by investing in a Mozambican rebel group RENAMO. The group launched a violent anti-FRELIMO campaign, destroying newly-built schools and clinics, and other public infrastructure. Their acts of sabotage became the seeds of a devastating civil war that would stretch out into the early 90s, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives.

Within a few years of independence, this simmering cocktail of instability had driven Mozambique into dire economic straits. These were worsened by internal political tensions, as the new mentality that Machel had preached struggled to take root. In Mozambique, like in many African countries, there were what historian David Robinson describes as “elements within the organisation and its military forces that looked forward to the rise of a black bourgeoisie after independence”.

Soon, these elements were casting shadows and smears over the vision that had bloomed at independence, and self-serving officers began to exploit their power for financial gain. Corruption crept into the highest tiers of military and political structures. Re-education camps that had been established to house criminals were particular points of controversy. Machel had hoped that by “integrating the man in a progressive and well planned activity, re-education makes him understand the importance of socio-political activity, it makes him understand that the life of one is connected with the lives of all”.


In practice, however, stories of mismanagement, unjust detention and bad treatment soon emerged from the camps. Machel confronted government officers for their role in the country’s decay, reiterating his desire to connect the period of armed struggle to a sustained revolution, a new society. “Our liberation war was not waged to replace Portuguese injustice by Mozambican injustice, European injustice by African injustice and foreign injustice by national injustice.”

Samora quote

Amidst the political hailstorm in which his presidency unfolded, this charismatic ideology was not easy to bring to life. Still, despite the economic meltdown, the disappointment of unfulfilled post-independence expectations and his reputation for dealing harshly with dissidents, Machel retained popular support during his time in office. Percy Zvomuya writes that “Unlike revolutionaries who never got to govern and therefore tarnish their legacy and early promise, [he had] a long enough time in office to disillusion many, yet people still cry when they think about Samora”.

Revolutionary integrity
But he was not short of enemies either, not least of which was the South African government, who invaded Mozambique in 1981 to hunt down African National Congress (ANC) members. In response, Machel held a rally in Maputo’s city centre, where he embraced then-president of the ANC Oliver Tambo before defiantly throwing out a challenge to the apartheid government:

“We don’t want war. We are peacemakers because we are socialists. One side wants peace and the other wants war. What to do? We shall let South Africa choose. We are not afraid…and we don’t want cold war either. We want open war. They want to come here and commit murder. So we say, let them come! Let all the racists come…then there will be true peace in the region, not the false peace we are now experiencing.”

Samora and Oliver: Oliver Tambo, his wife and Samora Machel in Mozambique, ANC Archives

Samora and Oliver: Oliver Tambo, his wife and Samora Machel in Mozambique, ANC Archives

Mozambican politicians were not spared his fearless fury at anything he perceived to be an affront to the integrity of the revolution. At another rally that year, he took a strong swing at corruption, declaring his intent to launch a “legality offensive” targeting military, defence and security officials who wanted to ride on the backs of the people. Historians Fauvet & Mosse write that “Diplomats from the Soviet bloc states were amazed. No leader of any other socialist country had ever castigated his own security forces in this way. Were such statements not the height of recklessness? Was Machel not inviting a coup d’état? But there was no coup.”

Assassination plot
Nonetheless, he was operating in an increasingly hostile terrain, which became especially clear after a foiled coup plot in 1984 in which members of his own cabinet were implicated, two of whom would go on to become president after his death. That year, as RENAMO wreaked increasing havoc in Mozambique – bombing infrastructure and killing civilians – Machel was also squeezed into signing an agreement with the South African government, in which he agreed to curtail support to the ANC in exchange for South Africa stopping its supply of money and arms to RENAMO.

Although the deal caused great disappointment to freedom fighters in the region, the threat posed by RENAMO at the time was so severe that even Tambo, then-president of the ANC, had to admit that “The [Mozambican] leadership was forced to choose between life and death. So if it meant hugging the hyena, they had to do it.”

But the situation continued to worsen. Before leaving for a meeting of Frontline states in Lusaka in October 1986, Machel made it publicly known that he had survived a recent assassination attempt. He accused the South African government of plotting to kill him, and issued instructions for what should happen in the event of his death.

Machel never returned to Mozambique from the meeting. On his way back, the presidential plane took an inexplicable and fatal 37-degree turn into the Lebombo mountain range that lies between South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland. Nine hours passed before South Africa notified Mozambique that the plane had crashed, even though South African security forces had been on the scene several hours before. During this time they went through the wreckage confiscating all official documents, as well as the plane’s black box. Incisions in the necks of the two pilots later raised suspicions that they had been killed at the site, not during the crash itself.

Soon afterwards, South Africa established a commission of inquiry which, after a delayed start due to the security forces’ initial refusal to hand over the black box, eventually issued a report blaming the crash entirely on error by the Russian crew. The Russian government convened their own inquiry, which concluded that the plane had been misdirected by a decoy beacon that was set up to pull it off course. The decoy led pilots to believe that they were above flat terrain near Maputo, when they were in fact flying straight into the mountains.

Plane's wreckage of the late President Machel

Plane’s wreckage of the late President Machel

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) later investigated this case, and published a report containing details that strengthened the theory of assassination. Graca Machel, Samora’s widow and the current wife of Nelson Mandela, testified that he had been killed and presented the TRC panel with details of a plot involving agents from South Africa, Mozambique and Malawi.

New investigation
The TRC failed to reach a definitive conclusion one way or another, although they stated that enough evidence had accumulated to warrant an investigation. Over a decade later, in December 2012, the South African government’s elite police unit the Hawks announced the launch of a new probe into the crash. The investigation is now underway in collaboration with the Mozambican government, and might finally bring some overdue answers to the questions that hang over Machel’s untimely death.

But regardless of the outcome, it won’t resolve other unsettling issues, issues of memory that linger in spaces beyond the reach of any commission of inquiry. Today in Mozambique, reminders of Machel are everywhere. Streets and institutions are named in his honour, striking statues capture his trademark gestures, bumper stickers testify to the popular support that he left behind. But the legacy that he lived for and died to defend is harder to find.

Is history happening in reverse? Where large numbers of Portuguese fled around independence, large numbers are now returning, enticed by the opportunities offered by the country’s booming economy. International organisations are sweeping into the country with business, aid, and with Jesus. In the rapid transition from being one of the world’s poorest to potentially one of the continent’s richest countries, conspicuous consumerism abounds. Where Machel called for nationalisation of the country’s resources, today’s government has assured foreign investors that Mozambicans need hold no more than a 20% share in mining ventures.

In South Africa, whose liberation he supported so fiercely, an impoverished informal settlement in Cape Town bears his name. Shacks are clustered around the OR Tambo road that runs through the township, which is situated at a deliberate distance from the moneyed city centre, offering a niggling reminder that flags and anthems might have changed, but the age-old system of economic oppression is still alive and kicking.

Ideas underfoot
Thomas Sankara, former president of Burkina Faso who was assassinated one year after Machel, remarked shortly before his death that “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.” But though ideas might be immortal, it seems it’s easy enough to forget them, to idolise personas and honour their memories with symbolic souvenirs while the visions for which they lived and died lie trampled underfoot as people scramble for riches.


We finally make it to the memorial, perched high on a hillside surrounded by rural tranquillity. Among preserved pieces of the plane’s wreckage, 35 steel tubes – one for each person who died that night – tower towards the sky, their specially designed slits releasing soft wails every time the wind blows.


It’s the kind of sound you can neither replicate nor forget, the kind that haunts you through the daily contradictions that fall into that ever-widening gap that Machel strove so hard to close, the gap between struggle as a series of actions and revolution as a way of life.