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Mozambique remembers Samora Machel

17 October 2011, 10:36

Johannesburg - Mozambicans will this week commemorate the plane crash that killed their first president 25 years ago, unveiling a new monument to a visionary leader whose death shattered a nation's dreams.

Atop a hill on the border that joins Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa 35 steel tubes mark the site where Samora Machel's airplane crashed mysteriously in 1986. The hollow pipes - one for each person that died - seem to moan when the wind passes, as though in mourning.

A statue of the late statesman will be unveiled in his country's capital Maputo on Wednesday, the anniversary of his death.

The commemorations get underway on Monday with a memorial service at the crash site near the town Mbuzini in northeast South Africa, attended by Mozambican President Armando Guebuza and his South African counterpart Jacob Zuma.

Mozambican students still sell DVDs of Machel's impassioned speeches on Maputo's streets, and the government declared 2011 "Samora Machel Year" as a testimony to his enduring popularity.

"The main thing about Samora is he had an extraordinary powerful common touch," says academic Colin Darch, who worked at the country's Eduardo Mondlane University in the 1980s.

"There's something in his vision of what Mozambique could be like that speaks to young people today who weren't born then."

Culture of discipline

Born in Chilembene village in Southern Mozambique, Samora Moises Machel worked as a nurse before becoming a revolutionary. He fought for liberation from the 400-year-long Portuguese colonial rule and became the first president at independence in 1975.

"He was very clear about creating a culture of discipline and hard work," says his widow Graca, who served under him as education minister and is now married to former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Machel included women and people of all races in the nation-building project of the ruling party Frelimo, in stark contrast with Mozambique's apartheid neighbour.

"It was very inspiring and encouraging for me as a South African to see this non-racial spirit working," recalls Albie Sachs, a former South African constitutional court judge who lived in Mozambique at the time and nearly died in a bomb attack himself for his activism against the white-minority government.

But socialist policies and a crippling civil war from 1977 funded secretly by South Africa forced Mozambique to its knees.

In a 1984 agreement Mozambique agreed to send away guerrillas of the then-liberation movement African National Congress. In return South Africa would stop bankrolling the rebel movement Renamo.

Neither kept their side of the bargain.

On the night of October 19 1986 Machel was flying home from a conference in Zambia when his Tupolev airplane crashed into the Lebombo mountains just a few kilometres from the border.

A South African-led enquiry blamed the Russian crew for the accident which killed 35 of the 44 aboard, including government ministers and academics.

But Mozambicans believed otherwise.

Reopen the wounds

"There was an utter conviction that the plane had been brought down" by the apartheid state, according to Sachs.

The news of the crash shattered Mozambicans just as they were finding their way in post-independence Mozambique.

"People at work were crying, walking slowly," he recalls.

And 25 years later Graca Machel feels the same pain.

"You reopen the wounds as you go through the details how the day started, how you were informed [of the crash], because there is no closure."

Nineteen years after Frelimo and Renamo signed a peace deal progress is dubious in Machel's country.

Over half of the 23 million Mozambicans live below the poverty line in one of the world's most unequal societies - "not something Samora would be proud of," his widow laments.

Corruption abounds and despite 6.5% growth last year, Mozambique still evokes a sense of unfulfilled potential," says Darch.

"There is a lost dream of what could have been achieved and what wasn't."


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