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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.


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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