This was no paper revolutionist. This was no man of empty rhetoric. This was a fighter in and of the trenches, dedicated to just causes in and outside the confines of his nation. He fought oppression in his homeland and he fought apartheid in South Africa.
Killed in a mysterious plane crash at the height of his physical and intellectual powers in 1986, Samora Machel left an unforgettable legacy on the African continent.
Machel was born in 1933 and was raised in the village of Chilembene. He was a member of the Shangana ethnic group and his parents were poor. Machel’s parents were forced to grow cotton by the Portuguese, rather than food such as corn which they could eat.
In the 1950s his parents’ farmland was taken and given to Portuguese settlers. In order to avoid starvation his relatives went to work in the South African mines under repressive and dangerous conditions. Soon after, his brother was killed in a mining accident.
Machel attended Catholic school, and when he was not in class he worked in the fields. He studied to become a nurse, one of the few professions open to Mozambican Blacks at that time.
Machel was attracted to Marxist ideals and began his political activities in a hospital where he protested that the black nurses were paid less than Whites who were doing the same job. He later told a reporter how bad medical treatment was for Mozambique’s poor by saying: “The rich man’s dog gets more in the way of vaccination, medicine and medical care than do the workers upon whom the rich man’s wealth is built.”
Rebellion against Portugal was not new to Machel. His grandparents and great-grandparents had fought against the Portuguese in the 19th century. In 1962 Machel joined the Front For The Liberation Of Mozambique, or FRELIMO, as it was called by most. FRELIMO was dedicated to creating an independent Mozambique.
In 1963, Samora Machel left Mozambique and travelled to several other African nations where he received military training. In 1964 he returned to Mozambique and led FRELIMO’s first guerrilla attack against the Portuguese in northern Mozambique.
Machel spent most of his time in the field with his men, leading them in combat and sharing their dangers and hardships. By 1970 he became commander-in-chief of the FRELIMO army.
He believed in guerrilla war and FRELIMO’s army established itself among the poor in Mozambique. He was a revolutionary who was not only dedicated to throwing the Portuguese out of Mozambique, but also radically changing the society.
He said: “Of all the things we have done, 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; that we realized that it was essential to create a new mentality to build a new society.”
Machel’s goals were to be realized. The revolutionary army weakened Portugal, and after the country’s coup in 1974 the Portuguese were forced to leave Mozambique. The new revolutionary government, led by Machel, took over on June 25, 1975. Machel became Independent Mozambique’s first president and was affectionately referred to as “President Samora”.
Machel put his revolutionary principles into practice. As a Marxist, he called for the nationalization of the Portuguese plantations and property. He moved quickly to have the FRELIMO government establish public schools and health clinics for the poor. He called for FRELIMO to organize itself into a Leninist party.
Machel supported and allowed revolutionaries fighting white minority regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa to operate within Mozambique. Soon after Mozambique’s Independence both of these countries attacked Mozambique with an anti-FRELIMO organization called RENAMO.
RENAMO’s activities included the killing of peasants, the destruction of schools and hospitals built by FRELIMO, and the blowing up of railway lines and hydroelectric facilities. The Mozambique economy was strangled by these attacks, and began to depend on overseas aid –– in particular from the Soviet Union.
Nonetheless, Machel remained popular throughout his presidency. Machel was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1975-1976.
On October 19, 1986, Machel was on his way back from an international meeting in Zambia in the presidential Tupolev Tu-134 aircraft when the plane crashed in the Lebombo Mountains, near Mbuzini. There were nine survivors, but President Machel and 24 others died, including ministers and officials of the Mozambique government. Although several years before the plane went down Machel had signed a non-aggression pact with South Africa, there was widespread suspicion that the apartheid regime was implicated in the crash.
On October 6, 1986, just two weeks before the crash, South African soldiers (SADF) were injured by landmines near the spot where the borders of Mozambique, South Africa, and Swaziland converge. This site was very close to where the Tupolev Tu-134 went down. Time Magazine noted that this “really seemed too much a coincidence”. Throughout southern Africa angry people mourned the loss of Samora Machel. In South Africa, protestors blamed their government for Machel’s death. In Zimbabwe thousands of youths stormed through downtown Harare.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the crash, which still remains a mystery, with some blaming it simply on bad weather and others still believing in South Africa’s guilt.
No conclusive evidence to either effect has yet emerged.
A few years ago, former South African president Thabo Mbeki paid tribute to Machel, describing him as a “towering giant of the African Revolution”. Mbeki said one question remained unanswered: was the apartheid regime responsible for the tragic deaths at Mbuzini where the plane came down?
In 1998, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) launched a special investigation into Machel’s death. However, it was unable to reach a firm conclusion and said that a number of questions had been raised, including the possibility of a false beacon.
In 2006, the South African government announced it would try to solve the plane crash, which remains one of the great mysteries of the apartheid era. But to date no investigation has reached a conclusion.
Today the big question remains: who orchestrated the crash? Was it the apartheid regime? Were there any other forces involved? Was it just simply an accident?