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oh Mbuzini, the president’s flight crashed in Mbuzini

A sign in Mbuzini shows the way to the museum built at the site of President Samora Machel's plane crash. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba

The death of Mozambican president Samora Machel in this village left an indelible mark on its residents as truth into his demise remains elusive writes LUCAS LEDWABA

The village of Mbuzini is the subject of two songs that form part of the Mozambican liberation history. The songs O avião presidencial foi car em Mbuzini [The president’s flight crashed in Mbuzini] and Mbuzini are laments to Machel’s death.

Machel’s plane crash also left an unforgettable mark on the people of Mbuzini. The village would probably have remained unknown to the world had it not been for this tragic crash.

The crash however, remains fresh on the memories of most residents, who recall seeing a big ball of fire falling from the sky that night. The following morning, as they went out to inspect what had befallen their village, they were met by hostile bands of SA Defence Force soldiers who chased them away and wouldn’t let them anywhere near the site. 

It was only later, when news of Machel’s death reached them via radio news broadcasts, that they began to understand the reason behind the big ball of fire.

Elmon Mahlalela was in custody when the crash happened about 1km from his home.

“Life was tough in Mbuzini,” he says, after singing with his cultural group at an event to commemorate the tragic crash.

The village was an important transit point for freedom fighters going into exile to Swaziland or Mozambique to receive military training in ANC camps. It was also an important route to smuggle arms and trained cadres back into South Africa after they had completed their training.

As a result, it attracted apartheid security agents, askaris, counter-insurgency operatives and soldiers even before Machel perished in the hills to the east of the village.

“If security forces found you herding cattle in the bush, they would arrest you and force you to confess to harbouring freedom fighters,” says Mahlalela.

A road sign in Mbuzini shows the way to the Samora Machel crash site. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba

A few months before the October 1986 crash, together with other residents, he was arrested under the state of emergency regulations following violent protests that broke out in settlements to the north of Mbuzini.

After the crash the situation in Mbuzini deteriorated so much, residents had to be indoors by sunset or face arrest.

“There were units of soldiers here. They stayed for about six months. We could not go anywhere,” Mahlalela says.

John Gama, the induna of the New Village section, which overlooks the museum, remembers that on the night of the crash he was returning from work and was met by the unfamiliar sight of bright lights on the hills.

“Life changed for us here [after the crash]. The Boers [South African Defence Force soldiers] would come into our homes and kick us around. They would ask, where is this Mandela of yours?” recalls Gama, a pained, nostalgic smile on his face.

Machel’s death remains the subject of legend in Mbuzini. Gama, who, like other residents, were barred from the crash site, believes Machel would have lived if he had been given medical assistance. He believes one of the apartheid security forces – with the support of foreign minister Pik Botha, who died last week – administered a killer dose of poison at the crash site.

“Machel asked them, why are you injecting me? If you are doing this to help me live that’s fine. But if you are killing me, you will be haunted all your life,” says Gama.

Gama shares the belief that the crash was not an accident but the work of the apartheid security forces. “There is no doubt the Boers killed him. It is actually painful for me being here today because just like Mandela, Machel was working to bring peace. But they killed him. Why?” he says.

Fruit vendor Gogo Mabuza on the eSwatini at the boundary separating SA from the monarchy. The village of Mbuzini is down to her right and behind her is Mozambique. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba

Nomsa Nkosi was in her early teens at the time of the crash. She recalls that people spoke of the incident in hushed tones, and there seemed to be an element of fear when they discussed it.

On an overcast morning, 18 October 2018, Josephina Salvatore breaks into a gloomy hymn, her voice rising above the wind blowing through the hills of Mbuzini, Mpumalanga.

Around her stand members of Mozambique’s ruling party, Frelimo, military veterans and relatives of the country’s former president Samora Machel, who died there in 1986.

Salvatore, a military veteran who was serving in the Mozambican army at the time of the crash, looks like she will break into tears any moment. Her voice quivers as she sings in Portuguese. She has never stopped loving the Mozambican liberation hero.

Heads are bowed in prayer. Before the assembly stands a beige brick wall about a metre high. It bears the names of Machel and the 34 members of his entourage who perished when the Russian Tupolev TU 134A-3 carrying them from a Frontline States meeting in Malawi crashed here on 19 October 1986.

The monument at the Samora Machel Museum marks the spot where the wounded president took his final breath moments after the crash.

Prayer at the Samora Machel crash site, Mbuzini, 18 October 2018. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba

Since the ANC – a one-time ally of Frelimo – came to power in 1994, delegations of Mozambican politicians, military veterans, family and friends, alongside their South African counterparts, have been annually gathering at this site to commemorate the passing of Machel.

But the passage of time and the demise of the apartheid regime, whose agents are believed to have engineered the crash, has not eased the pain of Machel’s comrades and compatriots, who, to this day, still regard the man as the father of a free Mozambique.

After the news of Machel’s death filtered back to her military camp in 1986, Salvatore describes the feeling of despair. “I cried. Everyone was crying,” she says shortly after performing rites at the spot marking where Machel died on Thursday, a day ahead of the 32nd anniversary of the crash.

“We are still crying,” she adds. “He was a very good man.”

To Frelimo comrades and military veterans, Machel represents selflessness, humility, bravery and an abiding love for a country, its people and the freedom movement that liberated Mozambique from Portugal’s colonial rule.

No longer in the military, Salvatore is struggling to raise funds for community development projects geared towards helping those who served in the liberation movement. Although times may be tough post-liberation, her love for Machel remains unwavering.

“He was our comrade. He was a very good man who taught us many things. But the most important thing he taught us was love. That is why we come here every year to remember him,” says Salvatore.

It is hard to imagine her in military fatigues, carrying an AK-47, crawling through the bush and firing at Renamo rebels who waged an onslaught against Frelimo. The war led to the deaths and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people between 1975 and 1992.

“He was supposed to be here with us [enjoying the fruits of freedom],” says Salvatore, who is wrapped in a kanga with a peach blouse and black doek.

Machel’s death evoked fury for the apartheid regime, which remains the prime suspect in the mysterious crash. But Salvatore says although the pain caused by Machel’s death remains, the anger towards those responsible has somewhat mellowed.

“We are very happy that he fought for all of us [in southern Africa]. We are all brothers and sisters, and we are all free because of people like him,” says Salvatore.

Among those who came to salute the former president is Alberto Chave Ngoma, who was a major in the Mozambican military at the time of the crash. He was in camp with his comrades when they received news that their commander in chief had died.

Wreath laying at Machel monument, Mbuzini, 18 October 2018. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba

Speaking through an interpreter, he looks away into the distant hills, where South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland meet, to ponder the question: what went on in camp when the news of Machel’s death arrived?

He speaks in a low, measured voice. “I cried,” he says. “We all cried.”

He is dressed in a black blazer bearing an emblem of the Associação de Deficientes Militares e Paramilitares Moçambique, an organisation for military veterans of the Mozambican liberation struggle. He is a stocky man with a quiet demeanour, but his face betrays the deep hurt he still harbours.

“We felt empty. We were wondering what was going to happen next,” he says. “We still feel the pain because of the death of the president. Each time we come here that pain is renewed.”

Maputo governor Raimundo Maico Diomba says the passing of time has not made the pain any easier. “It is not easy to talk about President Samora Machel. Even after 32 years, it’s still hard to accept this loss … He will always remain alive in all of us,” he says.

At the time of Machel’s death, Mozambique was in the middle of a bloody civil war. Many of the country’s citizens were fleeing their homes in rural villages, terrorised by the rebel movement Renamo.

Supported and abetted by apartheid South Africa, Renamo committed unspoken terrors, massacring whole villages, throwing bodies into wells, laying down landmines to trap villagers, slicing off the lips of opponents, forcing young boys to kill their own fathers and rape their mothers before making them join their band.

To millions of Mozambicans who lived through the horrors of the civil war and fought against Renamo, the late president was the embodiment of resilience, the symbol of resistance against the evil system of apartheid and the sadistic crimes of Renamo.

“Samora Machel is the father of Mozambicans,” explains Ngoma. “We miss him greatly because he was our friend. He would come to our military base and play football with the soldiers.”

The pipes at the Machel crash site making a haunting sound as the wind blows through the hills. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba

Machel entered into an agreement with the apartheid government through the Nkomati Accord, a non-aggression pact signed in 1984.

Machel and then President PW Botha agreed to cease supporting the ANC and Renamo respectively, an agreement that both parties reneged upon. It is widely suspected that Machel’s decision to break the Nkomati Accord led to South Africa’s alleged decision to eliminate him.

“We will never forget his role. He gave us shelter when we did not have a place to sleep. He fed freedom fighters when they had nothing to eat,” says Nkomazi local municipality mayor Johan Mkhatshwa, who adds that the current generation should take lessons of brotherhood from Machel.

“We are one. We must protect and defend one another. Apartheid was the enemy. We are not each other’s enemy,” he says, speaking in relation to xenophobia against Mozambicans and other African nationals in South Africa.

Mbuzini residents observing quiet moment at Machel crash site, Mbuzini, 18 October 2018. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba

Still no truth into Machel’s death

THE 35 steel pipes perched above the Mbuzini hills where the Samora Machel Museum is situated, make a haunting sound that resembles the whirring of a plane falling out of the sky.

The pipes were designed that way, to capture the full horror of that night on 19 October 1986 when Machel and 34 people in his entourage, died here on South African soil. 

When the wind blows, which happens often up there in the Lebombo mountains that separate South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique, the air is filled with this haunting, eerie sound.

It makes you wonder, what emotions gripped the Russian pilots in the cockpit of the Tupolev TU 134A-3 and the passengers in those final moments before the plane crashed, killing 35 people.

As I stood there listening to the eerie sound made by the pipes, I could not help imagining the chaos, the blood, the mangled limbs and shattered dreams of Machel and his people, the grief of their families and the collective anger of Africa’s oppressed people that year.

There is no way of knowing all this, for these hills tell no such tales. But pieces from the wreckage, strewn across the crash site as part of the display at the museum, tell the gory tale of what transpired there on that night.

The wreckage, a crucial part of history, could have been lost had it not been for the intervention of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigating team and the department of arts and culture, who traced the main pieces of wreckage from Tonga police station, others at a game farm and the rest from a scrap yard in Witrivier.

Part pf the wreckage of the plane carrying former President Samora Machel on display at the museum in Mbuzini. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba

Indicationsare that Machel was killed, probably with the help of South Africa’s apartheid security forces. But three commissions into the crash have failed to make a conclusive finding to that effect, although evidence presented points to a deliberate act to lure the plane of course from its destination, Maputo airport to the Mbuzini hills where it crashed.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report into the crash, presented to President Nelson Mandela on 29 October 1998, one of the nine survivors of the crash reported that South African security force officers were seen rummaging through the wreckage and confiscating documents shortly after the incident.

Not only that, South Africa’s Foreign Affairs Minister Pik Botha and Niel Barnard, head of the National Intelligence Service, admitted that documents had been removed from the scene for copying.

The survivor, according to the TRC, had walked to a nearby house to ask for help. Arriving back at the scene, he found South African security force officers already there. Witnesses who arrived to assist, including a nurse, testified that they were chased from the site.

How Botha and Barnard made it to the scene of the crash not long after it had happened, has raised questions about whether high ranking members of the SA government and security apparatus knew much more than they admitted to the Margo Commission and the TRC.

The day before he left for Zambia to attend the Lusaka Summit, Machel had convened a meeting with journalists, FRELIMO leaders and military officers. There he announced that he had received information that South Africa wanted him dead. Machel is then believed to have given instructions to his Cabinet and Party on action to follow should the information turn out to be true.

According to the TRC, a former South African Military Intelligence officer testified that he had been based at Skwamans, a secret security police base shared halfway between Mbuzini and Komatipoort, at the time of the incident.

A former South African Military Intelligence officer testified during the TRC that he had been based at Skwamans, a secret security police base shared halfway between Mbuzini and Komatipoort prior to the crash that killed Machel. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba

In his testimony, the officer said a number of high-ranking security force officials converged on the base for a meeting and a braai the day before the crash. They then allegedly left late that night in a small plane. The officer said some returned after the crash had taken place. An even more damning finding by the commission was that the South African authorities only informed the Mozambicans about the incident only a full nine hours after it happened. This was after a frantic massive nine hour land and sea search by the Mozambicans.

Although the Margo Commission which was appointed and run by the SA government, concluded that the aircraft had been airworthy and fully serviced and that there was no evidence of sabotage or outside interference and blamed the crash on pilot error; a Soviet team which also probed the incident concluded that a decoy beacon had caused the plane to stray off-course before it crashed into the mountains at Mbuzini.

One of the engines from the Russian Tupolev TU 134A-3 that crashed and killed 35 people on board including president Samora Machel. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba

Paul Gelpin, a South African Airways (SAA) signal expert told the TRC that the only way that a beacon to lure the plane off course could have worked was if there was an accomplice at the Maputo airport “who switched it off for the critical period of the plot”.

The TRC said evidence of a decoy beacon was strengthened by allegations that Maputo airport employee Cornelio Vasco Cumbe (alias Roberto Santos Macuacua), had been recruited by the South African security forces. Furthermore,  a South African Air Force flight sergeant told the Commission that he had seen a friend building such a beacon in the month before the crash. The commission also heard evidence that the tapes at the Maputo airport had been lost, further strengthening suspicions of South Africa’s involvement.

Also, the TRC established that relations between Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa were strained at the time of the crash, with Machel publicly accusing Kamuzu Banda, the Malawian president of colluding with PW Botha to support Renamo which was waging war against the ruling Frelimo.

“There is no doubt that President Machel was under enormous pressure at the time of his death, not least because of divisions in his own party. Ms Graça Machel confirmed previous attempts on his life, attacks on his residences and attempts by South Africa to attack the Mozambican capital. He was also engaged in a radical restructuring of both his cabinet and the military, which could have upset a number of high-ranking Mozambicans,” the TRC said in its findings.

But after all its work, the TRC concluded: “This Commission’s investigation into the matter did not find conclusive evidence to support either of these conclusions. Circumstantial evidence collected did, however, question the conclusions reached by the Margo Commission.”

A guided tour of the museum takes you on a journey of Machel’s political and personal life, and Mozambique’s battles with apartheid South Africa. Interesting works of art, including a statue of Machel in military fatigues, have been fashioned out of pieces of the wreckage.

Other pieces have been scattered around to simulate a crash site while some are preserved in the building. On display inside the museum are luggage bags salvaged from the wreckage, pictures and biographies of the deceased. It is an emotionally draining but worthwhile exercise.

The biographies of the 35 people who died when the plane carrying Mozambican president Samora Machel crashed in 1986 are on display at the museum in Mbuzini. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba.

Also on display is a brief history of Machel and Frelimo’s struggle to free not only Mozambique but southern Africa.

On 19 October 1996, president Nelson Mandela announced that the South African government and its Mozambican counterpart would construct a memorial at the site of the crash.

At the official opening of the memorial in January 1999, Thabo Mbeki, then South Africa’s deputy president told the gathering: “It is painful that our quest to understand the causes of the crash remains unfinished. The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, imperfect as it may be, has laid a foundation on which South Africans can work to forge a common understanding of their past.”

Mbeki continued: “In the same measure, it has taken us further towards our goal of bringing a legitimate and credible conclusion to the uncertainties about the event on this hillside some twelve years ago. It is up to all those who share our concern for the memories of those we lost, to take this matter forward.”

The long wait for the truth into Machel’s death continues…



Born: September 29, 1933, Gaza Province, Mozambique
Died: October 19, 1986, Mbuzini

Part of this article first appeared in New Frame in October 2018

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