The Mysterious Plane Crash That Shook Apartheid-Era Southern Africa

The Mysterious Plane Crash That Shook Apartheid-Era Southern Africa

Why you should care

A country at the heart of an often-forgotten proxy war still awaits closure. 

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Mozambican President Samora Machel had missed the birthday of his wife, Graca, by two days, but there was much more at stake as he returned on his Russian-made aircraft from Lusaka, Zambia, on Oct. 19, 1986. He had just met with Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, African National Congress leader Oliver Tambo and other southern African leaders about an escalating proxy war they were all fighting against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Mozambique was at the heart of that conflict.

Machel never made it home. His plane crashed just inside South African territory, near where that country’s borders meet those of Swaziland and Mozambique. In all, 34 crew members and passengers died.

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A Mozambican soldier inspects the wreckage of the airplane crash that killed President Samora Machel.

Source Patrick Durand/Getty

For journalist Dan Moyane, the crash was personally poignant. As a member of Radio Mozambique’s English-language service, he was to have flown on Machel’s plane to cover the Lusaka summit. His seat had eventually gone to an additional member of Machel’s delegation. Now, 32 years later, Moyane is convinced the crash wasn’t an accident.

But three separate probes into the crash have pointed — none of them conclusively — in three different directions. Experts are divided over whether a technical failure, pilot lapse or sophisticated assassination method killed Machel. And given the fog of the Cold War, when alliances were made and betrayed like chess moves, questions as to who was responsible for Machel’s death remain alive even for those like Moyane who believe the socialist leader was murdered.

His death weakened Mozambique.

Daniel Douek, political scientist

Where there is consensus is on the impact of Machel’s death. With Kaunda, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and the ANC leadership, Machel had led the region’s anti-colonial struggle that was instinctively suspicious of the West. Machel’s successor, Joaquim Chissano, fast-tracked reforms as part of Mozambique’s transition from a single-party state to a multiparty democracy. Under Chissano, the ruling Frelimo party, which had led the country’s freedom struggle, entered into negotiations with the anti-communist guerrilla force Renamo, which South Africa and Rhodesia had propped up as part of a proxy war against Mozambique since its independence in 1975.

“His death weakened Mozambique,” says Daniel Douek, a political science professor at Montreal’s Concordia University, whose research has focused on southern Africa in the 1980s. “His death strengthened the hands of the apartheid regime and of Renamo.”

After Mozambique’s independence from Portugal, the ANC and Zimbabwean freedom fighters planned military operations from there against the apartheid regime and Rhodesia, which retaliated by sponsoring and training the Renamo. In 1980, Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe, but South Africa continued to support Mozambique’s right-wing guerrillas. In 1984, Machel and South African President P.W. Botha struck the Nkomati Accord, under which Mozambique would halt ANC military operations in its territory in exchange for Pretoria ending support for Renamo. But that pact unraveled quickly, and by 1986, Renamo was launching attacks on Mozambique from Malawi. “He told us that Mozambique was determined to stop Malawi being used as a Renamo springboard,” says Moyane, recalling a conversation with Machel in Mozambique’s Tete province months before his death.

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Mozambican soldiers carry Machel’s coffin away from the wreckage of the crash.

Source Patrick Durand/Getty

The timing of the plane crash sparked suspicions among ordinary Mozambicans “that the plane was brought down to stop Machel from attacking Malawi, which was very close to apartheid South Africa,” says Moyane, though South Africa swiftly denied involvement. A persistent puzzle had begun.

Botha’s government set up a commission of inquiry under Supreme Court Judge Cecil Margo, which concluded that “there was no evidence of sabotage or outside interference” and the “cause of the accident was that the flight crew failed to follow procedural requirements.” But it could only hypothesize about reasons behind the plane’s surprising 37-degree turn 60 miles earlier than it should have, which led to the crash.

The Soviet Union — worried about Machel slowly moving away from Moscow’s influence — had key stakes too: The crew members had been Soviet citizens. It rejected the South African probe results. The Soviet investigation suggested — without conclusive evidence — that a decoy beacon had caused the plane to stray off course.

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South Africans hold photos of Machel and other victims of the plane crash on Oct. 19, 2006, in Mbuzini at a memorial built on a hill where Machel died 20 years earlier.

Source Alexander Joe/Getty

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid South African government conducted its own investigation and said it “did not find conclusive evidence to support” the findings of either the Margo panel or the Soviet probe. But “circumstantial evidence collected did, however, question the conclusions reached by the Margo Commission,” it said. In testimonies before the TRC, declassified in 2014, apartheid-era intelligence officers admitted the regime had made attempts at building frequency scramblers, while denying any connection with Machel’s death.

To some experts on the region like Douek, the circumstantial evidence and testimonies collected by the TRC, coupled with the apartheid regime’s history of political assassinations, point to murder. “The crash has all the fingerprints of a South African apartheid operation,” says Douek. Others, like South African flight safety expert Mark Young, are convinced the crash was an accident. In an article published in December 2014 on the South African website Politicsweb, Young argues that confusion between two similar-looking Russian symbols on a frequency dial the crew used to set their direction could have led to the mistake. (Young did not respond to a request from OZY for comments.) Critics of his conclusion question the likelihood of a Soviet crew confusing two Russian symbols. Graca Machel, who later married Mandela, told the TRC she was convinced the crash had been orchestrated.

But questions linger because “no investigation has reached a conclusion,” says Moyane. The Cold War is long over, and both the Soviet Union and the apartheid regime are history. Three decades after Machel’s death, however, says Moyane, the plane crash “remains one of the great mysteries of the apartheid era.”

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