Samora Machel

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US President Ronald Reagan and President Samora Machel of Mozambique
US President Ronald Reagan and President Samora Machel of Mozambique

Samora Moisés Machel (September 29, 1933 - October 19, 1986) was President of Mozambique from 1975 until he died eleven years later, when his presidential aircraft crashed in mountainous terrain where the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland converge.


Peasant roots

Machel was born in the village of Chilembene, Mozambique, to a poor peasant family. His parents were forced by the Portuguese colonialists to grow cotton rather than food crops, so hunger was prevalent in the family. He attended Catholic school but, when not in class, he had to work in the fields. He studied to become a nurse, one of the few professions open to Mozambican blacks at the time. In the 1950s his parents had their farmland confiscated and given to Portuguese settlers. To avoid starvation, his relatives went to work in the South African mines in dangerous conditions and, shortly afterwards, his brother was killed in a mining accident.

Liberation struggle

Machel was attracted to Marxist ideals and began his political activities in a hospital where he protested the fact that black nurses were paid less than whites doing the same job. He later told a reporter how bad medical treatment was for Mozambique's poor: "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." His grandparents and great grandparents had fought against Portuguese colonial rule in the 19th century so it was not surprising that in 1962 Machel joined the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) which was dedicated to creating an independent Mozambique. He received military training in 1963 elsewhere in Africa, and returned in 1964 to lead FRELIMO's first guerilla attack against the Portuguese in northern Mozambique. By 1970, Machel had become commander-in-chief of the FRELIMO army which had already established itself among Mozambique's peasantry. His most important goal, he said, was to get the people "to understand how to turn the armed struggle into a revolution" and to realize how essential it was "to create a new mentality to build a new society."


That goal would soon be realized. The FRELIMO army had weakened the colonial power and, after Portugal's coup in 1974, the Portuguese left Mozambique. Machel's revolutionary government then took over and he became independent Mozambique's first president on June 25, 1975. At home, he quickly put his Marxist principles into practice by calling for the nationalization of Portuguese plantations and property, and to have the FRELIMO government establish schools and health clinics for the peasants. As an internationalist, Machel allowed revolutionaries fighting white minority regimes in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa to train and operate with Mozambique. The regimes retaliated by forming a rebel group called RENAMO to destroy the schools and hospitals built by FRELIMO, and to sabotage railway lines and hydroelectric facilities. The Mozambique economy suffered from these depredations, and began to depend on overseas aid - in particular from the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, Machel remained popular throughout his presidency.

The fatal aircrash

On October 19, 1986 Machel was on his way back from an international meeting in Lusaka in the presidential Tupolev Tu-134 aircraft when the plane crashed into the hillside in the Lebombo Mountains. 10 people survived but Machel and 33 others died, some of them members of his government. The accident was attributed to the error of the Russian pilot but there is a conspiracy theory of complicity of South African security forces and that the plane had been intentionally diverted by a false navigational beacon signal, using a technology provided by Israeli intelligence agents.

Machel's death in context

According to a special investigation into Machel's death, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) reported a context which included:

  • A police video in the TRC's possession that shows South African foreign minister Pik Botha telling journalists at the crash site that President Samora Machel and others killed in the crash were his and President P. W. Botha's very good friends, and that their deaths were therefore a tragedy for South Africa. However, cabinet minutes record that, for several months before the crash, tensions between South Africa and Mozambique were increasing; and,
  • South Africa's State Security Council (SSC) minutes from January 1984 indicate that the Mozambican working group, including General Jac Buchner and Major Craig Williamson, discussed how to help RENAMO overthrow the FRELIMO government of Mozambique [1].

Mrs Machel

His widow, Graça Machel, is convinced the aircrash was no accident and has dedicated her life to tracking down her husband's killers. In July 1998, Mrs Machel married the then South African President Nelson Mandela.

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Preceded by:
President of Mozambique
Succeeded by:
Joaquim Chissano
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