Will we ever know the truth about Samora Machel?


File image (April 25, 1977) of Samora Machel (Sept. 29, 1933 Oct. 19, 1986), president of Mozambique, during his visit to Sweden. He was a Mozambican military commander, revolutionary socialist leader, and led the country from independence in 1975.

Investigators have recommended that the United Nations re-open an inquiry into the death of UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjold, who was killed in 1961 when his plane crashed into what is now Zambia. The investigators cited "persuasive evidence" that Hammarskjold’s plane was shot down.

A more recent air accident mystery took place on South African soil and remains an unresolved blemish on our past. Will we ever know the truth about Samora Machel’s death?

On 19 October 1986, a Soviet-built aircraft crashed at Mbuzini, a village in what is now eastern Mpumalanga. 33 people were killed, including the president of Mozambique. His homeland lay just over the next set of hills.

Less than fifteen years later - but in another South Africa - Nelson Mandela stood in Mbuzini and gave a beautiful speech in honour of "a statesman, soldier and intellectual who we claimed as our leader too".

Unveiling a monument to Machel in 1999, Mandela reflected on the unresolved mystery of the crash and the hope for transparency and justice.

“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. 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.”

As with so many aspects of the country’s transition, the findings of the TRC were a beginning, not a conclusion, and it remained a duty, Mandela urged, “to all those who share our concern for the memories of those we lost, to take this matter forward.”

Nearly another fifteen years have passed, and we seem no closer to a resolution.

At the end of 2012, the Hawks announced that they were finally launching an investigation into the accident. That was in December. If there has been any substantial progress since then, it has not been made public.

What did the TRC uncover and why has democratic South Africa not made a serious effort to pursue the matter?

The TRC report is a compendium of horror, and a clear assessment of the politics of subterfuge is not aided by sentimentality. Nonetheless, the first line of volume two, chapter six of the TRC report is heartbreaking.

“On 19 October 1986, the Mozambican presidential aircraft, a Tupolev TU 134A-3 was returning from Zambia after the Lusaka Summit to be in time for Ms Graca Machel’s birthday.”

Whatever celebrations had been planned would be indefinitely postponed.

The crash occurred in a segment of land marked by the Swaziland border on one side and the Mozambique frontier on the other.

The Margo Commission

An inquiry was commissioned, led by South African judge Cecil Margo, a decorated former fighter pilot who had participated in a number of air crash investigations - including the Hammarskjold inquiry. 

The Margo Commission report found that the plane was still in good condition, the weather was “suitable,” and the crew were rested and fit for duty and had extensive experience with that kind of aircraft.

“The return flight was uneventful,” the report stated, “until the aircraft was some 100km from Maputo when a 37° turn to the right initiated a series of events which culminated in the accident.”

At the estimated time of arrival, the crew began to worry that they could not see runway lights or receive guidance from the airport’s instrument landing system.

The commission found that as the crew had been stationed in Maputo for 18 months – where electrical shortages were becoming routine – they would plausibly have believed that the airport had no power, knocking out both the lights and the electronic landing systems.

The finding also highlighted possible communication errors between the flight controller, who was speaking English, and the crew, members of which spoke Portuguese and Russian as first languages.

The commission ultimately ascribed the accident to pilot error.

Alternative explanations

The Soviet Union, as manufacturers of the plane, had the right to conduct their own investigation.

The Soviets investigators accused the South Africans of performing a “one-sided” analysis, which hindered the investigation.

Specifically, they found that the reasons for the 37° turn and subsequent procedure to hilly terrain inside South African territory had not been adequately explained.

The competing analysis concluded that a decoy navigational beacon had misled the crew, dispatching the plane onto its fatal flight plan.

The TRC found “no conclusive evidence” to support either claim. However, the TRC decided there was circumstantial evidence challenging the original finding.


Why would South Africa want Machel out of the picture? According to the TRC report, Foreign Minister Pik Botha, speaking at the crash site, said that Machel and PW Botha were friends, and the deaths were a “tragedy” for South Africa.

Two years earlier, the two countries had signed the Nkomati Accord, a non-aggression pact promising non-interference in each state’s domestic affairs. (Incidentally, the pact explicitly ruled out sabotage.)

The pact was fiction.

South Africa’s support for RENAMO continued unabated. Craig Williamson, who ran dirty tricks for Pretoria, told the TRC that assistance to RENAMO now proceeded covertly.

Even if the president and cabinet were not apprised of the continued aid to RENAMO (see volume2, chapter 2 of the TRC report), Pik Botha’s comments are insupportable.

Tensions were increasing in the lead up to the crash, a fact supported by cabinet records.

Machel had also clashed with Malawi president, Hastings Banda, accusing him of being bought by the South Africans. This prompted an assault on Mozambique by RENAMO forces stationed in Malawi. Rumours swirled at the time that the RENAMO operatives were accompanied by South African recces.

As always, the regional politics of this time needs to be understood in its Cold War context.  Malawian support for the anti-communist RENAMO would have been seen as crucial to pinning back the influence of regional liberation groups, but also as part of the strategic effort to contain Soviet influence. In this context, Defence Minister Magnus Malan’s threat that Machel “will clash head-on with South Africa” cannot be taken as an idle warning.

When Oliver Tambo, speaking at the FRELIMO fourth congress in 1983, said that the “defeat of Portuguese colonialism by the people of Mozambique under the leadership of FRELIMO gave a great impetus to our own struggle in South Africa,” he was expressing a sentiment shared by his enemies.

And in this atmosphere, Machel’s threat to cut off Malawi access to the sea would have been received not only as an incredible provocation, but possibly as an unacceptable risk.

Records indicate that South African intelligence wanted to orchestrate a coup in Mozambique. Whether or not any such plan was attempted, Magnus Malan’s trip to Blantyre indicates that South African support was firmly behind Malawi and, by extension, RENAMO.

Graca Machel testified at the TRC hearings that, at a Malawi government crisis meeting at the time, the possibility of assassinating Machel had been raised. The report does not make clear the source of the rumour.

Graca Machel also told the hearing that her husband has been subject to assassination attempts prior to the crash.

Trouble within

FRELIMO was formed in the early 1960s in opposition to Portuguese colonial rule.

As RENAMO were later to rely on Malawian sanctuary and South African material support, FRELIMO’s war for independence was supported by Soviet resources and the friendship of Julius Nyerere, a good man and a great leader whose policies ruined his country.

If South Africa’s negotiated transition has proved unruly, one can imagine the fraught complexities of governing after a war.

In an informative paper, historian David Alexander Robinson outlines the culture of patronage and recrimination that marked Mozambique’s independence from the beginning.

After the war, opponents of the liberation movement were subject to reprisals, including physical violence. Machel took steps to tighten military discipline and to make state bureaucracy more responsive to the people. A more stable hierarchy, however, also conferred material privilege to those with power.

Machel would go on to crack down on corruption and inefficiency. Robinson records an instance where Machel fired three cabinet ministers he took to be responsible for maladministration. 

By the 1980s, fault lines had emerged within FRELIMO over Machel’s strong medicine. Significantly, by the early 1980s, even senior FRELIMO members were being upbraided for their lifestyles.

The years that followed saw a number of critical cabinet redeployments, with Machel consolidating power in key areas, rising public frustration and economic setbacks. All in the context of an ongoing civil war.

An apparent coup plot in the wake of the Nkomati Accord conceals as much as it reveals. While some of the plotters were no doubt motivated by liberation ideology, and opposed any dilution of support for the ANC, Robinson plausibly outlines other motives: most significantly, the “naked self-interest” of a corrupt military. Similarly, personal ambition cannot be ruled out.

By 1986, Machel was still tireless in his divisive campaign against corruption and self-interest.

The crash site

Reports indicate that South African security personnel were on the site remarkably quickly.

Bystanders who offered to help were allegedly turned away from the scene while officials collected documents.

In addition, testimony indicates that special forces operators were concentrated in the area prior to the crash.

Suspicion deepened in the weeks following the incident, when the South African government refused to relinquish the ‘black box’ flight recorders. 

A case of misdirection?

Allegations of a false navigation beacon comprise the heart of the conspiracy theory.

The Soviet investigation that ran parallel to Margo’s concluded that a decoy VOR (VHF omnidirectional radio – a navigation system that guides incoming aircraft) had misled the crew, causing them to believe they were approaching Maputo airport instead of hilly terrain inside South Africa.

Such a plan would be complicated by the fact that it would not be sufficient to place a false VOR; the conspirators would also somehow need to switch off the destination airport’s navigation system.

“Control over the Matsapa airport and the Maputo control tower would have been essential to the success of a decoy beacon,” the TRC report concedes.

The Commission noted that intelligence reports indicate that the Maputo airport may have been under the same influence as the criminal elements that were said to run Matsapha airport in Swaziland. Theoretically, this would have allowed the decoy beacon to misdirect the aircraft.

There is also reason to believe that South African authorities, who were equipped with sophisticated radar systems, were tracking the aircraft. It is curious that they never informed their neighbor about the plane veering into South African territory.

It is also odd that the government of Mozambique was only informed of the incident nine hours after the crash.

Later testimony

The evidence is intriguing. There is motive, and a plausible account of how the assassination could have been undertaken can be constructed. But pieces of the puzzle are still missing.

Additional testimony emerged that, if we take it seriously, would bring the apparent plot into sharper focus.

In a piece that appeared in the Mail & Guardian in 1998, Debora Patta offers a sensational account of a South African military intelligence official who let slip to one Umberto Fusaroli Casadei - who, Patta wrote, was working as a double agent for Machel - that Mozambican operatives were planning to have Machel killed. (Patta assisted the TRC Commission with the Machel investigation.)

According to Casadei, a romantic’s romantic who cut his revolutionary teeth fighting fascists, Machel knew which generals were plotting against him, but refused to have them liquidated.

More sensational yet, and what - if we take the report to be credible - would be a key piece of the puzzle, Patta describes “a foreign intelligence document from a neighbouring country” claiming that large sums of money were paid to Maputo airport officials to switch off crucial systems.

More dramatic testimony was unearthed later. In 2008, former special forces operator Hans Louw appeared on a Special Assignment programme.

In the show, which can be viewed online, Louw talks of a covert operation near the Mozambique border.

The interviewer asks if a target was mentioned.

“That target was specifically mentioned: the plane of Samora Machel”.

According to Louw, they were told the plane would “be expected that night in that specific vicinity”. He was part of a backup team tasked with shooting down the plane with a surface-to-air missile.

Are these claims true? Are they even plausible? It is hard to tell.

Robinson points out that while “one must approach an analysis of this topic with the utmost caution, a good historian may also realise that more truth could be contained in cocktail party conversation than in the most confidential government report.”

This is an insightful point, but we must also bear in mind that the Apartheid regime was founded on layers of lies and deception. There were so many mysteries because the state was inherently mysterious, and in a situation where everything is clandestine, to reveal any one thing may have been to reveal too much about other things. So much was secretive that almost any incident will offer up material for a plot.

What about the credibility of the investigation? “One has to ask,” Patta mused, “why South Africa always hauled out Judge Cecil Margo whenever it needed to conduct a sensitive aviation inquiry.”

Well, the obvious reason is that he was uniquely qualified for the task. He was a former pilot and an experienced jurist, and each air crash investigation he conducted made him more, not less, qualified to conduct the next inquiry.

Nor was the Margo Commission a one-man job. The panel comprised a number of experienced pilots and engineers, who presumably compared notes and expertise.

Furthermore, it appears to be common cause that misleading the flight crew was not so simple as placing a beacon in a field. Cooperation in Maputo was also needed.

“It is noteworthy,” the Margo report pointed out, “that the Soviet delegation, in its comment, conceded in effect that the Maputo VOR was operating prior to and at the time of the crash.”

Just as the Soviets accused South Africa of a one-sided investigation, the Margo report upbraids the Soviet inquiry for avoiding any reference to evidence against a decoy beacon.

However, the accumulation of circumstantial evidence is too significant to ignore.

In the Special Assignment video, a clip is shown of Margo insisting there is “not a tittle of proof, not a jot of evidence” pointing towards a false VOR. That is not a claim that could so easily be made today.

It is time we had a thorough investigation.


- Simon Shear, eNCA

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