Machel and Mandela: The Brothers-in-Arms Who Never Met

Sarah LeFanu, author of ‘S is for Samora’, on Nelson Mandela and Samora Machel

Originally published by Think Africa Press.

On a hillside in South Africa’s Lebombo Mountains, not far from the border with Mozambique, stands a memorial to Samora Machel – the leader of Frelimo and first President of independent Mozambique – and the 34 others who died with him on the evening of 26 October 1986. On that fateful day, the presidential plane, returning to Maputo from Zambia, crashed into the hillside. The monument, by sculptor José Forjaz, consists of a cluster of tall slender upright steel poles: thirty-five of them, one for each of those who died. As the breeze blows through the tops of the poles, they vibrate, humming like the engine of an aeroplane. When the wind rises, the hum changes to an eerie sobbing and crying.

Soon after Machel’s death, the Mozambican writer and poet Albino Magaia wrote: “The blood of Samora sealed the knot of union between the Mozambican people and the South African people.”

At the unveiling of the memorial in January 1999, Nelson Mandela spoke of a place “drenched with Mozambican blood”, and remembered Machel’s untimely death, saying, “We mourned with Mozambique for the loss of a statesman, soldier and intellectual who we claimed as our leader too. He was taken from us even as a new Southern Africa was struggling to be born amidst the death throes of the colonial and apartheid order.”

The story of Frelimo and the anti-colonial struggle in Mozambique is intricately caught up with the story of the African National Congress (ANC) and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. And the intertwining relationship between the two political organisations is reflected in the personalities and personal lives of Samora Machel and Nelson Mandela, both of whom were reviled in the West in the 1960s and 1970s as terrorists and leaders of terrorist organisations, both of whom believed a high standard of moral probity to be an essential quality in a revolutionary leader (and indeed in all revolutionaries), and both of whom found themselves, when in power, necessarily becoming strategists and negotiators. Machel and Mandela became their respective country’s first post-colonial, and post-apartheid, presidents. The two men never met.

Growing pains

Machel was 30 years old when he fled Mozambique in 1963, with the PIDE, the Portuguese security police, close behind him. He made his way through Swaziland and across South Africa to the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland (now Botswana). Machel was seeking an escape route to Tanzania, where he hoped to join the Mozambican Liberation Front (Frelimo), newly-formed out of a number of anti-colonialist and nationalist groups in exile, under the leadership of Eduardo Mondlane. Mozambique at that time was a colony of Portugal, or as Portugal preferred to call it, along with its other African colonies of Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, one of its ‘maritime provinces’. Through such nomenclature, Portugal hoped to pretend to the rest of the world that it wasn’t a colonising power at all.

The fortunes of the Machel family, who lived in Gaza province in southern Mozambique, were circumscribed both by neighbouring South Africa and by the Portuguese administration. The sale of Mozambican labour to the South African mines played a significant role in the Mozambican economy, and Samora’s father and eldest brother were part of that labour force. His brother died in the mines; his father managed to save enough of his wages to return to Gaza and invest in farming.

Samora grew up with a clear insight into the different rules that applied to the people of his community – who were classified as ‘indigena’ or ‘native’ – and those that applied to the Portuguese farmers and to the tiny percentage of the black population who qualified as ‘assimilados’ and were treated as honorary whites (a system that allowed Portugal to claim that its administration of its ‘maritime provinces’ was non-racist). For ‘natives’, lower prices were offered for the same crops, there were restrictions on the ownership of livestock, and a prohibition of private commercial business. Some time later, during the years of the armed struggle, Machel was asked in an interview how he had first become politicised. When did you first read Marx? he was asked. He replied: “I read Marx in the soil of my own land”.

Machel completed primary school and graduated at fourth grade, the highest grade available to an ‘indigena’, and high enough for him to enrol for nursing training. It was during his training, and subsequent employment as a nurse working at the Miguel Bombarda hospital in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) in the late-1950s and early-1960s, that Machel became more fully politicised. Despite censorship of the press, and the watchful eyes and ears of the security police, stories were circulating of liberation struggles in other African countries, and people were reporting signs of the beginning of the end of British (if not Portuguese) colonial rule. They talked of Nkrumah in Ghana, Nasser in Egypt, and increasingly visible opposition by the ANC to apartheid rule in neighbouring South Africa. During a visit to Lourenço Marques in 1962, Eduardo Mondlane addressed nationalist aspirations, and the possibility of resistance to Portuguese rule. Agents of the security police stood under the acacias on the pavement opposite the house belonging to the Swiss mission where Eduardo Mondlane was harboured, and noted down the names of those who visited.

Machel’s background was very different from that of the highly-educated Mandela. Different, too, was the political history into which each man stepped. While radical South Africans had a history of resistance to look to (the ANC had been founded in 1912), there had been little organised resistance to colonial rule in Mozambique since the emperor Ngungunhane, the Lion of Gaza, alongside whom Machel’s grandfather had fought, and who had been crushed by the Portuguese army in the last decade of the 19th century.

Intertwined struggles for independence

By March 1963, the ANC had been banned for three years. The young lawyer Nelson Mandela was in hiding; a few months later he would be arrested and charged with sabotage, alongside nine other defendants, all leading members of the armed wing of the ANC, in what would come to be known as the Rivonia Trial. He would be sentenced to life imprisonment. In Francistown airport in Bechuanaland, 26 members of the ANC were aboard a plane about to take off for Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. They were fleeing arrest, torture and lifelong imprisonment if not death at the hands of the apartheid police. Samora Machel too, also at Francistown airport, was fleeing arrest, torture, imprisonment and possible death at the hands of the Portuguese state’s PIDE. When one of the ANC cadres was bumped off the Tanzania-bound plane to make way for would-be Frelimo recruit Samora Machel, it was the beginning of a closely intertwined relationship between the two organisations.

After Mozambican independence in 1975, Mozambique became a haven for exiled ANC activists (including current South African President Jacob Zuma). They felt at home there; they were encouraged to participate in achieving the vision of a new society, a vision whose underlying principles they shared – a society united across race, one in which women played an equal part to men, one built on social justice and equality of all citizens. Both Samora Machel and Nelson Mandela had been instrumental in envisioning and articulating the shared revolutionary ideals that the two parties professed. And both men provided, not just to their respective party members but to the people of their respective countries, an embodiment of those ideals.

As South Africa ramped up its attempts to destabilise its hated neighbour, they began to use the ANC presence in Mozambique as an excuse to attack. At the same time, the South African Defence Force (SADF) was also financing, arming and training the group of anti-Frelimo dissidents that Military Intelligence had taken over from the Rhodesian security forces in 1980, and which now went by the name of Renamo. Mozambique found itself at war, with the ANC a counter in the deadly game.

In signing the Nkomati Accord on Non-Aggression and Good Neighbourliness with President P W Botha of South Africa in 1984, Machel pledged that Mozambique would stop offering a home to the ANC in return for South Africa’s promise to stop supporting Renamo. Those ANC members obliged to leave Mozambique at short notice were hurt and distressed, but the real dismay, felt as much by many members of Frelimo as by the ANC themselves, was at the equivalence that such an agreement appeared to endorse between an indigenous liberation movement such as the ANC and a foreign-backed group such as Renamo. But Machel was desperate to gain peace for his harassed people. Some months later, the post-Nkomati coolness between the ANC and Mozambican government was put aside and warm relations re-established, when ANC President Oliver Tambo said they knew the apartheid regime had been out to destroy Mozambique. “So if it meant hugging the hyena”, he said, “they had to do it”.

As it turned out, the hyena savaged Machel. South Africa’s proxy army, Renamo, continued to tear apart the fabric of civil society in independent Mozambique through acts of economic sabotage, the murder of civilians, and the destruction of rural health posts and primary schools. The South African military never had any intention of honouring the Nkomati Accord. They continued to channel weapons to Renamo, and even built an airstrip at the main Renamo base nestling in the foothills of the Gorongosa mountains. At the same time, the situation within South Africa was becoming increasingly unstable. International opinion about Mandela’s continued imprisonment was a source of embarrassment to the government, but he refused to parley with them over repudiating the principles and aims of the ANC. In 1986, a State of Emergency was declared.

It is widely believed, and sufficient evidence points to it, that the plane carrying Samora Machel back from a meeting with other African Heads of State in Zambia was lured off course by a decoy beacon in a plan set up by a group or groups within the government and military of South Africa to rid themselves of their intransigently and tiresomely revolutionary neighbour.

When Machel died, Nelson Mandela wrote from his cell in Pollsmoor prison to the South African authorities requesting an exeat in order to attend Machel’s funeral in Maputo. His request was denied. By then he had entered his third decade in captivity.

South Africa’s own intransigent revolutionary was released by Botha’s successor, F W de Klerk, in February 1990, three and a half years after the death of Samora Machel, a man he’d never met, but whose life had touched his own at many points.

If one knot of union between Mozambique and South Africa was sealed in 1986, then another knot was tied 12 years later. The first was marked by tragedy, the second celebrated in hope. On his 80th birthday, Nelson Mandela married his fellow-revolutionary, ex-minister in the Frelimo government, international campaigner for the rights of African children and women, and neighbour in southern Africa, Samora’s widow, Graça Machel.

Lasting legacies

Today, Mozambicans inevitably ask: is the country we now have the one Samora Machel wanted to build? Occasionally graffiti appear on Maputo walls saying that Machel would never have tolerated corruption.

The country has abandoned Machel’s system of government – it is no longer a one-party state trying to build socialism, but a multi-party system operating a capitalist economy. This can be read as betrayal, or simply as the fact that the channels taken by history are difficult to predict.

But some gains are truly irreversible: colonialism and apartheid have been eradicated and will never return to southern Africa. South Africa and Mozambique cooperate instead of waging war. And the names of Samora Machel and Nelson Mandela are inseparable from these victories.

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