Those in the public eye often lead a very different life to the rest of us, and this is especially true in politics. Political leaders often lead dangerous lives and make great enemies in the course of ruling, skirting the line of death the moment they step into the crowd and dare to stand out.
History is littered with the fallout of such lives. It is true that some leaders lived a full and uncontested life, but many others were killed for a multitude of reasons, some truly nonsensical. Julius Caesar was stabbed by a conspiracy of politicians concerned about the concentration of power about a single man, for example, whereas Ronadl Reagan was shot by something who thought the actress Jodie Foster would be impressed.
And then there are the unexplained deaths, which appear accidental but could be much more. One such story concerns Samora Machel, the first president of independent Mozambique.
How did the founding father of Mozambique die, and why is it still under a cloud of mystery?
Samora Machel, the founder and president of the free country of Mozambique, died on 19 October 1986 when the plane carrying him crashed into a mountainside. While air crashes are pretty unpredictable, and Machel’s death could have been an accident, investigations also point out that the possibility of sabotage cannot be ruled out either.
The fateful flight that carried Samora Machel and his aides from a regional summit in Zambia was the Soviet-crewed Tupolev 134A. The deadly crash that resulted in Samora Machel’s death happened on the hillside of Mbuzini in South Africa. There were 44 people on the plane. Only 9 of those onboard survived the crash, and Samora Machel was not one of them.
South Africa, where the crash originally happened, reached the official conclusion that the crash happened due to pilot error. The Russian pilots of the plane had been accused of failing to control the aircraft with proper care, instead enjoying some alcohol which they had bought before takeoff.
However, this explanation was not accepted by either Mozambique or the USSR, who insisted on further investigations. The two countries believed that the plane carrying the president had been steered off course by a decoy VOR navigation signal (which the pilots use to orient themselves) transmitted on the same bandwidth as the Maputo airport. The Maputo airport had a power failure on the same night, and the pilot had followed the decoy signal all the way into the ground.
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Although there were demands for onsite investigations and probes from Mozambique and its allies, South Africa was not wholly cooperative in the situation. South Africa stalled any effort to further investigate the cause of the air crash and death of Samora Machel.
Even when they were finally induced to co-operate, the pace of investigation was very slow and South Africa handed over the black box recorders salvaged from the plane only a month after the crash. The delay in the process raises doubt about the reason for the crash and the circumstances that contributed to Machel’s demise.
The official verdict reached into the crash however was that it was an accident, caused by attempting to land at night without due care and with limited instrument assistance. At least, that was the case until 2016, when the French Government declassified files related to the crash.
A note attached to the declassified files shows that the French believed the incident happened due to negligence at the highest level. The files state that Machel was warned about the problems with the planes he was using and the dangers to himself. The Soviet pilot’s procedures of checking the plane before the flight had discrepancies, and the president had been warned about not flying in this type of plane.
However, the inquiry report that Judge Cecil Margo had released three decades earlier in July 1987 did not mention the faulty equipment of the plane that crashed. The Margo report talked about how the plane’s equipment was up to date, and there could not be any fault, and that the error was from the pilot’s side, as standard checking procedures were ignored.
The South African Foreign Ministry initially said that the pilot’s drunkenness led to the unfortunate accident. However, Margo’s report only talked about the procedures that were not followed. However, there are other problems with this report, primarily that it was created without the help of the investigation team that included Russian and Mozambique officials.
Therefore, the people of Mozambique, to whom the whole report mattered the most, were kept in the dark about the true analysis and how it was not used in creating the report. Therefore, there are a number of errors, baseless conclusions and inefficient recommendations that result in a conclusion which does not factor in all the investigatory evidence.
A few days before his death, Samora Machel had hosted a regional summit for frontline states in Maputo. In the summit, he had demanded that their neighbor Malawi stop any support to his political opponents, or Mozambique would deny Malawi coastal access to the Indian Ocean.
Machel also wanted the support of “Front Line States” against the apartheid South African-funded Unita in Zaire. On the day of the crash, Machel was returning from meeting with the heads of states of FLS.
Machel was also not bending to the financial and military pressures that South Africa was putting on other African nations. The summit of the FLS in Maputo, and the proposed boycott of South Africa, was deeply unpalatable to the South Africans. Did the white apartheid state decide to kill Machel, or perhaps to scare him with a near-fatal crash?
Historians who have studied the unfolding of events back then also talk about how relations between Mozambique and South Africa were at the lowest at this point, and Machel’s death could have been a consequence. Right before and after the crash, there were rumors of an attack on Maputo, the place where the FLS heads met with a landmine explosion going off on the South Africa- Maputo border. South Africa also suspended the employment of more than 100,000 Mozambican gold mine workers, resulting in an economic setback for Mozambique.
Investigation into the real cause of death for Samora Machel was stalled because the local public intervened at the crash site when the crash happened. People took away debris as trophies, and no one monitored the site’s security.
Machel’s bodyguard, one of the survivors, reported that South African officials, ministers and defense personnel also disturbed the crash site, searching for diplomatic bags and items of national importance rather than potential survivors.
Emergency services only arrived at the crash site after eight hours; by then it was too late for many of the passengers. It is possible that Samora Machel died due to these delays and stalls in rescue or the immediate impact of the air crash.
Was Machel murdered, his pilots confused by a fake beacon which lured them into the ground in the dark? Or were his pilots drunk and incompetent? The details of the incident are blurry, but the specter of sabotage will always loom over it.
Top Image: Samora Machel was Mozambique’s first president. Source: vfutscher / CC BY-NC 2.0.
By Bipin Dimri