Josephina Salvatore breaks into a gloomy hymn, her voice rising above the wind blowing through the hills of Mbuzini, Mpumalanga.
Around her stand members of Mozambique’s ruling party, Frelimo, military veterans and relatives of the country’s former president Samora Machel, who died there in 1986.
Salvatore, a military veteran who was serving in the Mozambican army at the time of the crash, looks like she will break into tears any moment. Her voice quivers as she sings in Portuguese. She has never stopped loving the Mozambican liberation hero.
Heads are bowed in prayer. Before the assembly stands a beige brick wall about a metre high. It bears the names of Machel and the 34 members of his entourage who perished when the Russian Tupolev TU 134A-3 carrying them from a Frontline States meeting in Malawi crashed here on 19 October 1986.
The monument at the Samora Machel Museum marks the spot where the wounded president took his final breath moments after the crash.
Since the ANC – a one-time ally of Frelimo – came to power in 1994, delegations of Mozambican politicians, military veterans, family and friends, alongside their South African counterparts, have been annually gathering at this site to commemorate the passing of Machel.
The sorrow never ends
But the passage of time and the demise of the apartheid regime, whose agents are believed to have engineered the crash, has not eased the pain of Machel’s comrades and compatriots, who, to this day, still regard the man as the father of a free Mozambique.
After the news of Machel’s death filtered back to her military camp in 1986, Salvatore describes the feeling of despair. “I cried. Everyone was crying,” she says shortly after performing rites at the spot marking where Machel died on Thursday, a day ahead of the 32nd anniversary of the crash.
“We are still crying,” she adds. “He was a very good man.”
To Frelimo comrades and military veterans, Machel represents selflessness, humility, bravery and an abiding love for a country, its people and the freedom movement that liberated Mozambique from Portugal’s colonial rule.
No longer in the military, Salvatore is struggling to raise funds for community development projects geared towards helping those who served in the liberation movement. Although times may be tough post-liberation, her love for Machel remains unwavering.
“He was our comrade. He was a very good man who taught us many things. But the most important thing he taught us was love. That is why we come here every year to remember him,” says Salvatore.
It is hard to imagine her in military fatigues, carrying an AK-47, crawling through the bush and firing at Renamo rebels who waged an onslaught against Frelimo. The war led to the deaths and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people between 1975 and 1992.
“He was supposed to be here with us [enjoying the fruits of freedom],” says Salvatore, who is wrapped in a kanga with a peach blouse and black doek.
Machel’s death evoked fury for the apartheid regime, which remains the prime suspect in the mysterious crash. But Salvatore says although the pain caused by Machel’s death remains, the anger towards those responsible has somewhat mellowed.
“We are very happy that he fought for all of us [in southern Africa]. We are all brothers and sisters, and we are all free because of people like him,” says Salvatore.
Among those who came to salute the former president is Alberto Chave Ngoma, who was a major in the Mozambican military at the time of the crash. He was in camp with his comrades when they received news that their commander in chief had died.
Speaking through an interpreter, he looks away into the distant hills, where South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland meet, to ponder the question: what went on in camp when the news of Machel’s death arrived?
He speaks in a low, measured voice. “I cried,” he says. “We all cried.”
He is dressed in a black blazer bearing an emblem of the Associação de Deficientes Militares e Paramilitares Moçambique, an organisation for military veterans of the Mozambican liberation struggle. He is a stocky man with a quiet demeanour, but his face betrays the deep hurt he still harbours.
“We felt empty. We were wondering what was going to happen next,” he says. “We still feel the pain because of the death of the president. Each time we come here that pain is renewed.”
Maputo governor Raimundo Maico Diomba says the passing of time has not made the pain any easier. “It is not easy to talk about President Samora Machel. Even after 32 years, it’s still hard to accept this loss … He will always remain alive in all of us,” he says.
At the time of Machel’s death, Mozambique was in the middle of a bloody civil war. Many of the country’s citizens were fleeing their homes in rural villages, terrorised by the rebel movement Renamo.
Supported and abetted by apartheid South Africa, Renamo committed unspoken terrors, massacring whole villages, throwing bodies into wells, laying down landmines to trap villagers, slicing off the lips of opponents, forcing young boys to kill their own fathers and rape their mothers before making them join their band.
To millions of Mozambicans who lived through the horrors of the civil war and fought against Renamo, the late president was the embodiment of resilience, the symbol of resistance against the evil system of apartheid and the sadistic crimes of Renamo.
“Samora Machel is the father of Mozambicans,” explains Ngoma. “We miss him greatly because he was our friend. He would come to our military base and play football with the soldiers.”
Machel entered into an agreement with the apartheid government through the Nkomati Accord, a non-aggression pact signed in 1984.
Machel and then President PW Botha agreed to cease supporting the ANC and Renamo respectively, an agreement that both parties reneged upon. It is widely suspected that Machel’s decision to break the Nkomati Accord led to South Africa’s alleged decision to eliminate him.
“We will never forget his role. He gave us shelter when we did not have a place to sleep. He fed freedom fighters when they had nothing to eat,” says Nkomazi local municipality mayor Johan Mkhatshwa, who adds that the current generation should take lessons of brotherhood from Machel.
“We are one. We must protect and defend one another. Apartheid was the enemy. We are not each other’s enemy,” he says, speaking in relation to xenophobia against Mozambicans and other African nationals in South Africa.
The village of Mbuzini is the subject of two songs that form part of the Mozambican liberation history. The songs O avião presidencial foi car em Mbuzini [The president’s flight crashed in Mbuzini] and Mbuzini are laments to Machel’s death.
The people of Mbuzini
Machel’s plane crash also left an unforgettable mark on the people of Mbuzini. Elmon Mahlalela was in custody when the crash happened about 1km from his home.
“Life was tough in Mbuzini,” he says, after singing with his cultural group at the commemoration.
The village was an important transit point for freedom fighters going into exile to Swaziland or Mozambique to receive military training in ANC camps. It was also an important route to smuggle arms and trained cadres back into South Africa after they had completed their training.
As a result, it attracted apartheid security agents, askaris, counter-insurgency operatives and soldiers even before Machel perished in the hills to the east of the village.
“If security forces found you herding cattle in the bush, they would arrest you and force you to confess to harbouring freedom fighters,” says Mahlalela.
A few months before the October 1986 crash, together with other residents, he was arrested under the state of emergency regulations following violent protests that broke out in settlements to the north of Mbuzini.
After the crash the situation in Mbuzini deteriorated so much, residents had to be indoors by sunset or face arrest.
“There were units of soldiers here. They stayed for about six months. We could not go anywhere,” Mahlalela says.
John Gama, the induna of the New Village section, which overlooks the museum, remembers that on the night of the crash he was returning from work and was met by the unfamiliar sight of bright lights on the hills.
“Life changed for us here [after the crash]. The Boers [South African Defence Force soldiers] would come into our homes and kick us around. They would ask, where is this Mandela of yours?” recalls Gama, a pained, nostalgic smile on his face.
Machel’s death remains the subject of legend in Mbuzini. Gama, who, like other residents, were barred from the crash site, believes Machel would have lived if he had been given medical assistance. He believes one of the apartheid security forces – with the support of foreign minister Pik Botha, who died last week – administered a killer dose of poison at the crash site.
“Machel asked them, why are you injecting me? If you are doing this to help me live that’s fine. But if you are killing me, you will be haunted all your life,” says Gama.
Gama shares the belief that the crash was not an accident but the work of the apartheid security forces. “There is no doubt the Boers killed him. It is actually painful for me being here today because just like Mandela, Machel was working to bring peace. But they killed him. Why?” he says.
Nomsa Nkosi was in her early teens at the time of the crash. She recalls that people spoke of the incident in hushed tones, and there seemed to be an element of fear when they discussed it. On the day of the commemoration, she was contracted to serve meals to guests. Her children have been to the museum as part of the many school tours to the site.
Ebbe Westergren of Bridging Ages, a Swedish organisation that helped create the museum, perhaps best captured its significance in his address at the commemoration: “How do we learn from Samora Machel? Let us follow his path of unity and peace. Let’s use the past to develop the future.”
– Mukurukuru Media