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South Africa builds fitting memorial to Samora Machel

Harrowing homage paid to Mozambique's first president who was killed in mysterious crash.

MBUZINI, South Africa — Atop a gently rolling hill near this village in the northeastern part of South Africa lies the site of one of the great tragedies of modern African history. It was here, almost exactly 23 years ago, that Mozambique’s first independent president died less than a mile from his beloved country in a plane crash that has yet to be fully explained.

Samora Machel’s shadow continues to loom large in Mozambique. Machel’s liberation movement-turned political party, Frelimo, has ruled the country since its independence in 1975 and once again swept the national elections. Frelimo won a landslide victory of more than 75 percent of votes cast in the October 28 elections, according to official results announced Nov. 11. President Armando Guebuza was re-elected to a second five-year term.

Renamo, a former rebel movement that fought Machel’s Frelimo fiercely during a 15-year civil war, is now the main opposition party and recently praised Machel for his integrity and said one of the first actions of a Renamo government would be to reopen the investigation into Machel’s death.

Portrait of Mozambique's first president Samora Machel at memorial in South Africa
Portrait of Mozambique's first president Samora Machel.
(Nicolas Brulliard/GlobalPost)

Mozambique is littered with tributes to Machel, from avenues bearing his name to monuments and statues, but it is the one in South Africa — a country already home to moving cultural landmarks such as the Apartheid Museum or the Robben Island prison — that is the most harrowing homage to his memory.

The first sight for the visitor to the Samora Machel Monument is that of 35 iron poles representing the 34 lives lost in the 1986 plane crash along that of Machel (nine passengers survived the crash.) The hollow posts, designed by Mozambican architect Jose Forjaz, emit an eerie sound as the wind blows through them. The sound effect is intentional, as well as the rust stains at the base of the poles.

“That sound symbolizes the mourning and the sound of the crash,” said Bonginkosi Shekwa, a guide at the monument. “(The rust) symbolizes the tears and the blood.”

Established in 1999, the monument now also includes a library and a small museum that were added in recent years. It’s impossible to escape the violence of the crash as parts the Russian-made plane are scattered on the grounds and inside the museum. Local artists also used parts of the wreckage to make murals and sculptures. The museum also features a gallery of the victims’ portraits and pieces of luggage that somehow survived the crash unscathed.