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Samora Machel was the first president of Mozambique following independence in 1975. He came to prominence in the 1960s during the struggle to end Portuguese colonial rule over Mozambique and was influential as a leader of the Mozambique Liberation Front, known as Frelimo for the Portuguese name, Frente de Libertação de Moçambique. Machel was born on September 29, 1933, to a rural family in southern Mozambique, and as a child he attended a Catholic mission school. He worked briefly as an orderly, trained as a nurse from 1952 to 1954, and was then employed as a nurse in the capital city, where he continued his nursing education. He and Sorita Tchaiakomo had a common-law relationship, and they had four children together. Machel married Josina Machel in 1969 during the armed struggle, and they had one child before Josina died in 1971. He married Graça Machel in 1975, and they had two children.
European nations began the process of granting independence to their African colonies in the 1950s and 1960s, but Portugal refused to end its colonial ties. As a result, the anticolonial movements in the Portuguese colonies, including Mozambique, were forced to operate clandestinely. Machel was greatly influenced by his experiences in the colonial medical services, where he witnessed racial divisions among workers and in the treatment of patients. He began attending secret nationalist meetings, and in 1961 he met and was deeply inspired by Eduardo Mondlane (1920–1969), who emerged as the leader of the Mozambican liberation movement. Within a year Machel had attracted the attention of the Portuguese secret police and had to leave Mozambique in 1963 when he joined Frelimo in exile in Tanzania. Machel joined the military sector of Frelimo and trained in Algeria. The first shots of the armed struggle were fired in 1964, and by 1966
Machel was the commander of the Frelimo army. His contribution to the development of Frelimo’s politics included his perspective that the independence struggle was not a racial issue of black against white, but was a struggle for freedom from the colonial system, an issue that continued to be contentious for many years. He was also a strong voice for socialism within Frelimo. After Mondlane’s assassination in 1969, Machel emerged as the leader of Frelimo and as president of Mozambique after the Portuguese fascist government was overthrown in 1974.
As president, Machel focused on unifying Mozambique and implementing an ambitious socialist program of reforms. Many enterprises were nationalized, education and health were dramatically expanded to serve ordinary Mozambicans, and new laws were introduced to support women, peasants, and others who had been marginalized under colonialism. But Mozambique was one of the poorest nations in the world, and it was difficult to sustain the planned changes. South Africa and Zimbabwe, both ruled by white-minority regimes in the 1970s, helped form and support an anti-Frelimo organization known as Renamo (for Resistência Nacional de Moçambique, Mozambique National Resistance). Machel found himself mired in an intractable guerrilla war as Renamo wrought extensive damage and destruction in Mozambique throughout the 1980s, ending with a peace accord in 1992.
Machel himself was a casualty of that war. In October 1986 he traveled to Zambia to participate in talks designed to bring an end to Renamo’s attacks. As his plane returned to Mozambique on October 19, it crashed under suspicious conditions. The plane, a Tupelov 134, apparently followed a beacon that the Soviet pilots believed would bring them to their airfield in Mozambique. Instead they crashed into a low hill inside South Africa at Mbuzini. Samora Machel and twenty-four other passengers, including other members of the government, were killed. South African officials claimed that the accident was a result of pilot error. Most Mozambicans and many others believe that the crash was orchestrated by the South African apartheid regime. Despite several investigations, including testimony as part of South Africa’s postapartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the exact circumstances of the crash have not been determined. More than twenty years later, President Armando Guebuza of Mozambique promised to further investigate Machel’s death, saying the government “would not rest” until the events that led to the death of his predecessor were clarified.
- Christie, I 1989. Samora Machel: A Biography. London: Panaf.
- Munslow, Barry, 1985. Samora Machel, An African Revolutionary: Selected Speeches and Writings. Trans. Michael Wolfers. London: Zed.
- Público. Guebuza promete investigar morte de Samora Machel. September 27.
- Souto, Amélia, and António S 1996. Samora Machel: Bibliografia (1970–1986). Maputo, Mozambique: UEM Centro de Estudos Africanos.
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