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Samora Moisés Machel

In office
June 25, 1975 – October 19, 1986
Succeeded by Joaquim Chissano

Born September 29, 1933(1933-09-29)
Madragoa, Gaza Province, Portuguese East Africa
Died October 19, 1986 (aged 53)
Mbuzini, Lebombo Mountains, South Africa
Political party FRELIMO
Spouse(s) Graça Machel

Samora Moisés Machel (September 29, 1933 – October 19, 1986) was a Mozambican military commander, revolutionary socialist leader and eventual President of Mozambique. Machel led the country to independence in 1975 until his death in 1986, when his presidential aircraft crashed in mountainous terrain where the borders of Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa converge.


Early life

Samora Machel was born in the village of Madragoa (today's Chilembene), Gaza Province, Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), to a family of farmers. He was a member of the Shangana ethnic group and his grandfather had been an active collaborator of Gungunhana. Under Portuguese rule, his father, a native, was forced to accept lower prices for his crops than white farmers; compelled to grow labor-intensive cotton, which took time away from the food crops needed for his family; and forbidden to brand his mark on his cattle to prevent thievery. However, Machel's father was a successful farmer: he owned four plows and 400 head of cattle by 1940. Machel grew up in this farming village and attended mission elementary school. In 1942, he was sent to school in the town of zonguene in Gaza Province. The school was run by Catholic missionaries who educated the children in Portuguese language and culture. Although having completed the fourth grade, Machel never completed his secondary education. However, he had the prerequisite certificate to train as a nurse anywhere in Portugal at the time, since the nursing schools were not degree-conferring institutions. Machel started to study nursing in the capital city of Lourenço Marques (today Maputo), beginning in 1954. In the 1950s, he saw some of the fertile lands around his farming community on the Limpopo river appropriated by the provincial government and worked by white settlers who developed a wide range of new infrastructure for the region. Like many other Mozambicans near the southern border of Mozambique, some of his relatives went to work in the South African mines where additional job opportunities were found. Shortly afterwards, one of his brothers was killed in a mining accident.[1][2][3][4][5][6] Unable to complete formal training at the Miguel Bombarda Hospital in Lourenço Marques, he got a job working as an aide in the same hospital and earned enough to continue his education at night school. He worked at the hospital until he left the country to join the Mozambican nationalist struggle in neighbouring Tanzania.

Liberation struggle

Machel was attracted to Marxist ideals and began his political activities in the Lourenço Marques hospital where he protested against 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 left his first wife and four children behind. He received military training in 1963 elsewhere in Africa, and returned in 1964 to lead FRELIMO's first guerrilla attack against the Portuguese in northern Mozambique. Machel married his second wife, Josina (née Mutemba), in 1969, who gave him a child later that same year. By 1969, 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". Two months after the assassination of FRELIMO's president, Eduardo Mondlane, in February 1969, a ruling triumvirate comprising Samora Machel, Marcelino dos Santos and Frelimo's vice-president Uria Simango assumed the leadership. Simango was expelled from the party in 1970, and Machel assumed the presidency of the movement [7].


Independent Mozambique with Maputo as capital

Following Portugal's coup of 25 April 1974, the left-wing military regime that replaced the 48-year old Portuguese dictatorship soon decided to grant independence to the five territories administered by Portugal in Africa (Cabo Verde, Overseas Province of Guinea, São Tomé e Príncipe, Overseas Province of Angola and Overseas Province of Mozambique). When Machel's revolutionary government took over, he became independent Mozambique's first president on June 25, 1975. Marcelino dos Santos became vice-president. Uria Simango, his wife Celina and other FRELIMO dissidents such as Adelino Gwambe and Paulo Gumane (former leaders of UDENAMO, one of the National liberation groups in Mozambique) were arrested and later extra-judicially executed [8].

In fact, as early as during the transitional government it shared with Portugal, FRELIMO shattered all opposition to its rule. Former militants Lázaro Kavandame, Uria Simango, Paulo Unhai, Kambeu and Father Mateus Gwengere were arrested, under the pretext that they had allied themselves with elements of the white community during the 7 September 1974 upheaval against the transfer of power to FRELIMO (Mateus Gwengere was kidnapped in Kenya, where he had sought refuge, and brought secretly to Mozambique). The same wave of arrests caught Joana Simeão, who, in opposition to FRELIMO’s one-party system, had created a political party, GUMO (Grupo Unido de Moçambique – United Group for Mozambique), proposing a model based on pluralism and free market (which FRELIMO would ironically adopt years later, when it eventually renounced Marxism).

They were all accused of "treason", even though Joana Simeão herself had never been a member of FRELIMO. After a period of internment in campos de reeducação (re-education camps), they were executed following a summary trial in the so-called "revolutionary" and "popular" style presided by Samora Machel himself. Domingos Arouca, Pereira Leite (who had nevertheless had some political activity against the colonial regime), Máximo Dias (GUMO’s # 2) and another FRELIMO dissident, Miguel Murupa, managed to escape to Portugal. Dr Willem Gerard Pott, a lawyer whose resistance to the colonial regime was well-known, was abhorred for not showing unconditional allegiance to FRELIMO. Following a period of detention during which he was subject to humiliating treatment (such as being displayed half-naked in public), he died in prison.

SNASP (Serviço Nacional de Segurança Popular – National Service for People’s Security) and PIC (Polícia de Investigação Criminal – Criminal Investigation Police) began a wave of arrests, using both traditional prisons and the so-called campos de reeducação located randomly in northern and central sparsely populated areas. Even Machel’s first wife, whom he had deserted in 1963, was detained, despite her total abstention from political activity. Citizens were under permanent watch by the grupos dinamizadores (movement teams), of control cells set up at neighborhood and workplace level.

Machel quickly put his Marxist principles into practice by calling for the nationalization of Portuguese plantations and property, and proposing the FRELIMO government establish schools and health clinics for the peasants. A land reform was imposed, gathering peasants in aldeias comunais (communal villages) in accordance with the kolkhoz and sovkhoz model. For this purpose, the new Mozambican regime did not hesitate to use the old aldeamentos, or strategic hamlets, in which the Portuguese Army had tried to confine the rural population in order to remove it from FRELIMO’s influence in the war-ridden areas of the North (paradoxically, FRELIMO itself then denounced such aldeamentos as "concentration camps"). Deeply contrary to the traditional way of life in the Mozambican countryside, which was characterised by single-family units scattered in the bush, the land reform based on the aldeias comunais concept soon proved to be a monumental fiasco.

As an internationalist, Machel allowed revolutionaries fighting white minority regimes in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa to train and operate within Mozambique. The regimes retaliated by forming a rebel group called RENAMO to destroy the infrastructures 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.

Samora Machel was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize (1975-76).

Machel’s change of attitude towards the Portuguese

It is widely admitted that one of the main reasons for the economic and financial collapse of post-independence Mozambique was the hasty departure of the majority of about 200 000 Portuguese residing in the country on the eve of the Portuguese revolution, which had taken place on 25 April 1974, and that such exodus was caused by a sudden change of attitude by Samora Machel. Indeed, the transitional government that ruled the country from the cease-fire agreement (signed in Lusaka on 7 September 1974) to independence (set for 25 June of the following year) acted in a very conciliatory fashion. Prime-Minister Joaquim Chissano (who would become President of the Republic after Machel’s death twelve years later) managed to convince the majority of the white population that only those bearing heavy responsibility for the darkest pages of the colonial era should fear FRELIMO’s rule.

However, one month before independence, i.e., in mid-May 1975, Samora Machel crossed over into Mozambique from Tanzania, in the far North, and started a tour heading for the capital city of Lourenço Marques, in the far South, where he would arrive on the eve of Independence Day. Along this tour, he galvanised the masses with bitter speeches, recalling incessantly the most abhorrent and humiliating aspects of colonialism from the standpoint of colonised Mozambicans. Unease gradually got the upper hand in the Portuguese community, many of whose members then decided to rebuild their lives elsewhere.

Several explanations have been proposed for this change of attitude. In his memoirs, Dr António de Almeida Santos, a renowned lawyer from Lourenço Marques who, after the fall of Caetano’s regime, became Minister for the Coordination of Portuguese-Administered Territories and who was a close friend of Machel’s, sustains that FRELIMO’s President was strongly affected by two outbursts of violence involving the white population [9]. The first of such episodes was caused by an upheaval in the capital city on 7 September 1974, with the seizing of offices and transmitters of the Rádio Clube de Moçambique, in protest against the Lusaka Agreement signed by the Portuguese Provisional Government and FRELIMO, which provided for the handover of power exclusively to the nationalist movement. This upheaval was led by FICO (Frente Integracionista de Continuidade Ocidental – Integrationist Front for Western Continuity), a movement mostly composed by whites with which FRELIMO dissidents and other members of the black community unwilling to accept a one-party system had allied themselves. FRELIMO supporters retaliated with bloody riots in the black shantytowns surrounding the city and, during several days, thousands of people, mostly Portuguese, were barbarously slaughtered, along with blacks who had allegedly remained loyal to their employers. The second episode of violence happened a few weeks later, on 21 October 1974, when a quarrel between Portuguese commandos and FRELIMO guerrillas in downtown Lourenço Marques gave rise to another wave of bloody riots in the black shantytown areas, with the murder of dozens of whites. According to Almeida Santos, Machel possibly become convinced that the presence of a numerous Portuguese community in Mozambique would always be a source of instability and a potential threat to FRELIMO’s rule. To that was allegedly added pressure from the Soviet Union, to which FRELIMO had contracted a heavy debt, namely of a political nature, and which desired to be rid of the Portuguese in order to better exercise its influence at all levels.

Plausible as it may be, this explanation leads us to a surprising conclusion: Since the two outbursts of violence had occurred at the start of the transitional period (the first had even taken place before the inauguration of the government headed by Joaquim Chissano), FRELIMO must therefore have taken its decision to push the Portuguese away at the very moment when its Prime-Minister Chissano seemed to encourage them to stay. But how can it be explained that a transitional government headed by a senior representative of FRELIMO adopts a reconciling approach in such blatant contrast with Machel’s hostile and vengeful behaviour later on? A lack of coordination between the President’s policy and that of his delegate in the transitional government seems out of the question. The most likely explanation is that everything must have been previously arranged at the highest level within the movement: transition would be conducted smoothly during the first stage, until the independence process became irreversible, and as soon as the overwhelming majority of Portuguese colonial officials, in particular the military, left the country (i.e., immediately before independence), Samora Machel’s radicalism – in other words, FRELIMO’s true face – would reveal itself.

The fatal aircrash and investigations

On October 19, 1986 Samora Machel was on his way back from an international meeting in Lusaka, Zambia, in the presidential Tupolev Tu-134 aircraft, when the plane crashed in the Lebombo Mountains, near Mbuzini, South-Africa. There were ten survivors,[10] but President Machel and thirty-three others died, including ministers and officials of the Mozambique government.

The Margo Commission, set up by the South African government, but which included high-level international representation, investigated the incident and concluded that the accident was caused by pilot error.[10] Despite the acceptance of its findings by the International Civil Aviation Organization, the report was rejected by the Mozambican and Soviet governments. The latter submitted a minority report suggesting that the aircraft was intentionally lured off course by a decoy radio navigation beacon set up specifically for this purpose by the South Africans. Speculation about the accident has therefore continued to the present day, particularly in Mozambique.[11]

Hans Louw, a Civil Cooperation Bureau operative, claims to have assisted in Machel's death.[12][13] Pik Botha, South African foreign affairs minister at the time, who later joined the ANC, said that the investigation into the plane crash should be re-opened.[14]

In his memoirs, Jacinto Veloso, one of Machel’s most unconditional supporters within Frelimo, sustains that Machel's death was due to a conspiracy between the South African and the Soviet secret services, both of which had reasons to get rid of him.

According to Veloso, the Soviet ambassador once asked the President for an audience to convey the USSR’s concern about Mozambique’s apparent “sliding away” towards the West, to which Machel supposedly replied “Vai à merda!” (something like “Go to hell!”, but more vulgar). Having then commanded the interpreter to translate, he left the room. Convinced that Machel had irrevocably moved away from their orbit, the Soviets allegedly did not hesitate to sacrifice the pilot and the whole crew of their own plane.[15]

Jacinto Veloso

Born in Mozambique to a Portuguese family, Jacinto Veloso deserted the Portuguese Air Force in 1963 and flew with his plane to Tanzania, where he joined FRELIMO by the time the latter was organising its first armed attacks against Portuguese rule. After the independence, he was appointed organiser and head of SNASP (Serviço Nacional de Segurança Popular – National Service for People’s Security), the new regime’s political police. A few years after the death of Samora Machel, he was accused of corruption and barred from all significant political activity.

Graça Machel

Machel's widow, Graça (née Simbine), is convinced the aircrash was not an accident and has dedicated her life to tracking down her husband's alleged killers. In July 1998, Mrs Machel married the then South African President Nelson Mandela. She thus became unique in having been the first lady of two different nations, (Mozambique and South Africa).


A memorial at the Mbuzini crash site was inaugurated on January 19, 1999 by Nelson Mandela and his wife Graça, and by President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique. Designed by Mozambican architect José Forjaz, at a cost to the South African government of 1.5 million Rand (US$ 300,000), the monument comprises 35 steel tubes symbolising the number of lives lost in the aircrash. At least eight foreigners were killed there, including the four Soviet crew members, Machel's two Cuban doctors and the Zambian and Zairean ambassadors to Mozambique.[16]

Also, a street in Moscow bears his name and the Zimbabwean band R.U.N.N. family had a hit song that mourned his loss.


  1. ^ Samora Machel, a Biography, Author(s) of Review: David Hedges Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Sep., 1993), pp. 547-549, JSTOR
  2. ^ Azevedo, Mario, Historical Dictionary of Mozambique, African Historical Dictionaries, No. 47., Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1991.
  3. ^ Christie, Iain, Machel of Mozambique, Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1988.
  4. ^ Henriksen, Thomas H., Revolution and Counterrevolution: Mozambique's War of Independence, 1964-1974, Greenwood Press, 1983.
  5. ^ Samora Machel: An African Revolutionary, edited by Barry Munslow, Zed Books, 1985.
  6. ^ Mozambique: A Country Study, edited by Harold D. Nelson, Foreign Area Studies, American University, U.S. Government, Research Completed 1984.
  7. ^ Samora Machel: Biography and Much More from
  8. ^ Mozambique: a tortuous road to democracy by J .Cabrita, Macmillan 2001 ISBN 970-0-333-97738-5
  9. ^ António de Almeida Santos, Quase Memórias, p. 110, ed. Casa das Letras, Lisboa, 2006.
  10. ^ a b "Accident description". Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved 2007-12-18.  
  11. ^ "Samora Machel remembered". BBC News. October 19, 2001. Retrieved 2008-03-30.  
  12. ^ "Ex-CCB man in Machel death claim". Daily Dispatch. Retrieved 2008-10-06.  
  13. ^ "A Case of Assassination?" (PDF). University of Cape Town. Retrieved 2008-10-06.  
  14. ^ "Probe Samora Machel's death - Pik Botha". Sunday Independent. Retrieved 2008-10-06.  
  15. ^ Jacinto Veloso, Memórias em Voo Rasante, p. 204-209, ed. Papa-Letras, Lisboa, 2007
  16. ^ Panafrican News Agency January 5, 1999 "Monument for Machel plane crash site"

See also

External links

Preceded by
President of Mozambique
Succeeded by
Joaquim Chissano


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