South Africa builds fitting memorial to Samora Machel

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.


Born in a small village in southern Mozambique, Samora Machel trained as a nurse before joining the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo) before turning 20. Machel then became a military commander for the movement before assuming Frelimo’s leadership following the assassination of its leader in 1969. He became Mozambique’s first president after Portugal granted independence to its African colonies in 1975.

As president, Machel favored Marxist policies and developed strong ties with the Soviet Union. He also offered support to other liberation movements in the region, such as South Africa’s African National Congress and the Zimbabwe African National Union led by Robert Mugabe and allowed the groups to operate from Mozambique.

Machel was coming back from an international summit in Zambia on Oct. 19, 1986, when his plane inexplicably crashed near Mbuzini. An investigation conducted by the apartheid government put the blame on the plane’s Soviet crew. Others, including the Soviets and the Mozambicans, have disputed this conclusion, saying the crash was the result of radio interference intentionally caused by the South African government.

Adding to the controversy, South African authorities took a full nine hours before alerting their Mozambican counterparts to the crash, and witnesses described how South African police combed through the wreckage for documents and valuables before assisting the survivors.

“Throughout the day we shall mourn with you a mighty soldier, a courageous son, a noble statesman,” wrote Nelson Mandela, who was still in prison at the time, to Machel’s widow, Graca. “We must believe that his death will strengthen your and our resolve to be finally free.” Mandela later married Graca Machel, making her a first lady in two different countries.

No fewer than five commissions investigated the accident, but no conclusive evidence has emerged. Still, Shekwa, the guide, has reached his own conclusion.

“The plane was diverted through false signals,” he said. “I can say the apartheid government killed these people.”

Today, Mozambique is in a better place than it was at the time of Machel’s death. His successor, Joaquim Chissano, continued Machel’s reforms, and he signed the peace agreement that put an end to the country’s civil war in 1992. Two years later, he and Frelimo won the first multi-party elections. While it remains plagued by poverty, Mozambique has experienced sustained economic growth since 1992 and is expected to record growth of 4.3 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The recent elections were also be the most competitive yet with the arrival of a new political party, the Democratic Movement of Mozambique (MDM.)

For the museum, too, things could be looking up. The remoteness of the monument, which is located an hour south of South Africa’s famed Kruger National Park, means that few visitors stop by. On a good day, up to 50 show up, said Shekwa, who tends to the grounds in between guided visits. Nonetheless, there are plans for additional displays and a hotel at the monument, he said. As is the case all over South Africa, soccer fans in the country for next year’s World Cup are expected to flock to the monument.

“We are targeting that,” Shekwa said.


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