“SAMORA Machel is dead. This death must serve to enlighten and strengthen us as revolutionaries…we have discovered that the enemy knows how to strike down combatants even when they are in the air,” said former Burkinabe, President Thomas Sankara, following the death of Mozambican President Samora Moisés Machel in a plane crash in South Africa on 19 October 1986.
The plane crash came barely two months after the eighth Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit held early September 1986 in Harare, Zimbabwe, where President Machel had once again launched a verbal salvo on apartheid South Africa, denouncing its policy of racial segregation that denied the black majority opportunities for socio-economic development and political freedom.
“Apartheid, like colonialism, cannot be reformed,” Machel had said, adding that “apartheid, like colonialism, must be eradicated.”
During that NAM meeting in Harare, President Machel had called for international support for the African National Congress (ANC), then an outlawed movement in South Africa, “and all South African democratic forces in the implementation of their anti-racist policy and broadening the great internal and external front against apartheid.”
That plane crash on 19 October in the Lebombo Mountains, Mbuzini, near South Africa’s border with Eswatini and Mozambique, robbed the Southern African Development Community (SADC) of a charismatic leader who was committed to political and economic liberation of countries in the region.
Just six years earlier, Machel, together with eight other Heads of State and government from the region, had formed the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC) – precursor to SADC – to push for the economic liberation of the majority-ruled countries in the region by reducing their economic dependence on apartheid South Africa.
One of those co-founders of SADCC was President Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the founding president of the United Republic of Tanzania, who in August 1986 famously said that apartheid South Africa was an “enemy of African Liberation and, therefore, of SADCC.”
By reducing dependence on apartheid South Africa, SADCC was in a way imposing its own economic sanctions on South Africa, aimed at weakening and arm-twisting the administration in Pretoria into submission, “for that dependence is a weapon for the defence of apartheid,” Nyerere said.
Confronting the apartheid regime came at a huge cost, but SADCC countries were willing to pay the cost for the liberation of their kith and kin in South Africa.
“Our participation in the struggle for the reality of freedom, and therefore, for the ending of apartheid, will not be sacrificed for any consideration at all,” Nyerere said, while receiving the Seretse Khama Medal on 26 August 1986.
While Machel was not the only leader voicing disgust at the Pretoria regime, he seemed fully aware of the threat that the apartheid administration posed to Mozambique.
“By virtue of our anti-racism, economic potential, regional role, strategic position and historical dependence on South Africa, Mozambique is a prime target in the framework of Pretoria’s regional strategy,” Machel had told the NAM Summit.
Days after his death, Sankara – himself assassinated in 1987 and four days to the first anniversary of Machel’s death – revealed that President Samora knew that he was a marked man because of his constant resistance to apartheid. “Samora Machel knew he was targeted by imperialism,” Sankara said.
The tension between Mozambique and South Africa came despite the two signing an Agreement on Non-Aggression and Good Neighbourliness on 16 March 1984, famously known as the Nkomati Accord. The accord urged South Africa “to stop its destabilisation of Mozambique and to renounce aggression against our country,” said Machel.
Observers say Machel paid the ultimate price for confronting the powerful and cruel apartheid regime in the neighbouring country, accusing South Africa of using a decoy navigation beacon to deceive the pilots into thinking that they were landing in Maputo.
Sankara, for example, did not mince his words in his attack on the apartheid government, when he said, “to discover who killed Samora Machel, let us ask ourselves who is rejoicing, and who has an interest in having Machel killed… first the racist whites of South Africa, whom we have never stopped denouncing.”
Together with the apartheid regime, Sankara also accused the supporters of imperialism, in particular the rebel movements in Angola and Mozambique who were receiving support from South Africa to destabilise first their own countries and the entire southern African region.
However, the Pretoria administration consistently denied any involvement in the crash of the Tupolev Tu-134 jetliner that killed Machel and 33 other passengers, in which only nine passengers and one crew member survived.
Despite his confrontation with the apartheid government in South Africa, President Machel did not live to see South Africa attaining majority rule following the general elections held on 27 April 1994, won by the ANC under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.
It is such sacrifices that SADC remembered on 23 March when the region commemorated the Southern Africa Liberation Day.
“Without the commitment and selflessness of the men and women who sacrificed their lives, we would never have achieved the political liberation of our region. We owe a great deal to our Founders, we might have lost the majority of them, unfortunately, but their legacy lives on, may their souls rest in eternal peace,” SADC Executive Secretary, Dr Stergomena Lawrence Tax said in a statement to commemorate the day.
The author, Mukundi Mutasa writes in his personal capacity for the Southern African News Features.