Samora Moises Machel

A dedicated military man and socialist revolutionary, Samora Moises Machel (1933-1986) presided over the independence of Mozambique from Portugal in 1975 and became its first president.

Samora Moises Machel was born on September 29, 1933, in a village in the District of Gaza in the south of Mozambique. Like the great majority of Mozambicans of his generation, he grew up in an agricultural village and attended mission elementary school. Machel completed the fourth class—the prerequisite certificate for any higher education. Most youngsters aspired to complete elementary school and perhaps learn a skill, but most found it difficult. Machel's hopes for higher education were frustrated by Catholic missionaries who refused to grant him a scholarship. Without financial assistance it was difficult for most Africans to pay school fees, room, and board. Many families needed the income earned by all family members just to survive.

Machel hoped to train as a nurse—one of the few professions which had been open to blacks, albeit on a subordinate basis, since the early 20th century. Unable to secure the fees to complete formal training at the Miguel Bombarda Hospital in Lourenco Marques (today Maputo), he got a job working as an aide in the hospital and earned enough to continue his education at night school. He worked at the hospital until he left the country to join the nationalist struggle.


The Progress of a Revolutionary

Machel, like so many others, suffered under colonial rule. He saw the fertile lands of his farming community on the Limpopo river appropriated by white settlers. His family worked unprofitable and arduous cotton plots to comply with the colonial government's cotton cultivation scheme, and they lost loved ones to work accidents and illness resulting from the unsafe and unhealthy work conditions prevailing in the mines, farms, and construction companies which employed thousands of Mozambicans. As an educated black working in the capital city in the heyday of colonialism, Machel faced the arrogance and racism despised by black workers throughout the country.

The visit of Eduardo Mondlane to Lourenco Marques and Gaza in 1961 was a turning point for Mondlane and many others. Samora Machel, among others, urged the educator Mondlane to dedicate himself to the nationalist cause. Since the late 1950s Mozambicans from many backgrounds had left the country to organize an offensive. Mondlane accepted the challenge to unite the many currents of Mozambican nationalism into a front with a better chance for success. In June 1962 Mondlane accepted Tanzanian President Nyerere's invitation to convene the principal nationalist groups in Dar es Salaam. The leaders of these groups agreed to form the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo) under Mondlane's leadership. Thereafter, the stream of Mozambicans making their way to Tanzania to take up arms became a river. By August 1963 Samora Machel had made his way to Tanzania to join the insurgents.

Machel was a member of the first group of Frelimo soldiers sent to Algeria for military training. Upon completion of training, Machel returned to Tanzania to serve as an instructor at Frelimo's Kongwa military training camp. By September 25, 1964, when Frelimo launched the armed struggle, 250 guerrillas had been trained for combat. Machel coordinated guerrilla strategy for the Niassa campaign. Two years later, upon the death of Frelimo's Secretary of Defense Filipe Magaia, Machel became secretary of defense and then commander-in-chief of the army—positions he held throughout the war.

Machel developed Frelimo strategies from his positions within the war zone, propagandizing revolutionary values among the population of areas held by the guerrillas. Machel firmly held that political and social issues were as fundamental to the viability of the guerrilla war as were military tactics. His qualities as a tough soldier and a persuasive speaker won him favor among his cadres. He also enjoyed the confidence and respect of Frelimo President Mondlane. By 1968, when tension due to conflicting political visions among competing factions within the leadership reached crisis proportions, Mondlane, sensing the imminent danger of assassination, remarked to a close friend: "They are determined to kill me…. But I am not worried any more. We really do have a collective leadership, a good leadership. Frelimo—the movement—is greater than one man. They don't understand that…. That Samora, they don't know him. That man is brilliant. He understands."

On February 3, 1969, Mondlane was killed by a parcel bomb. It was then nearly impossible to maintain unity among factions. In April 1969 a presidential council was elected comprised of Uria Simango (former vice president), Samora Machel, and Marcelino dos Santos (former secretary for foreign affairs). In November 1969 Simango was suspended from the council, and in February 1970 he was expelled from Tanzania. Machel became acting president and dos Santos acting vice president. At the fourth session of Frelimo's Central Committee in May 1970 their positions were confirmed and Simango was formally expelled from the party. The faction within Frelimo which opposed the emphasis on a prolonged guerrilla struggle in favor of combining military action with the establishment of socialism left with Simango and eventually organized an opposition movement.

Machel, like Mondlane, was committed to the transformation of Mozambican society. He claimed: "Of all the things we have done, the most important—the one that history will record as the principal contribution of our generation—is that we understand how to turn the armed struggle into a Revolution; that we realized that it was essential to create a new mentality to build a new society." As Frelimo president he continued his efforts to instill new attitudes among the Mozambican people in the war zones. Observers quipped that he travelled "…. with the headquarters in his pocket." Machel had a special colleague in the person of his wife and comrade-in-arms Josina Abiatar Muthemba Machel. They were married in May 1969.

Josina Muthemba Machel first tried to leave Mozambique to join Frelimo forces in Tanzania in March 1964, but was apprehended and imprisoned by the Portuguese. She finally escaped to Tanzania and in August 1965 she was assigned to organize political education within the women's unit on the Niassa front. From 1965 to 1971 she continued as a guerrilla and political organizer. By 1970 it was clear that her health was deteriorating. Nonetheless, in March 1971 she undertook a march into Cabo Delgado, but was ultimately evacuated to a hospital in Dar es Salaam where she died on April 7, 1971. Today she is remembered as a revolutionary heroine. In 1975 Machel married Graca Simbine, also a Frelimo militant. Simbine became Mozambique's minister of education.

Under Machel's leadership Frelimo's military made some key inroads and suffered some devastating setbacks. He emphasized the expansion of the military effort, but insisted that it proceed hand in hand with the political effort. The armed struggle gained momentum in 1973-1974. In 1974 a combination of factors—not the least of which was Frelimo's tenacious military drive—led to the 25th of April military coup in Portugal and the subsequent collapse of Portuguese colonialism.


Independence and First President

At this key juncture Machel and the Frelimo leadership held out for full independence and progress toward socialism, rejecting overtures toward compromise. They increased military pressure, and by September 1974 Portugal agreed to grant Mozambique independence under Frelimo rule on June 25, 1975.

During Mozambique's first decade of independence Samora Machel—President Samora, as he was popularly known in Mozambique—faced the immensely difficult task of national reconstruction. He spearheaded socialization of services and nationalization of wealth and oversaw the transformation of Frelimo into a Marxist-Leninist party in 1977. By the early 1980s, however, increasing guerrilla war waged by a somewhat motley collection of opposition groups, a period of destructive floods followed by a devastating regional drought, strategic errors in the state economic planning sector, and a world-wide economic recession combined to create a crisis situation in Mozambique. The government found itself increasingly unable to feed, defend, and service its people.

Machel remained characteristically pragmatic—taking responsibility for both popular and unpopular decisions. He imposed economic sanctions on the Rhodesian government, a popular act even though it caused severe economic consequences for the Mozambican economy. He also signed the unpopular Incomati Accord, a non-aggression pact with Mozambique's principal foe, the Union of South Africa. He signed the accord hoping to alleviate the combination of economic and military pressure which was increasingly undermining the viability of the Mozambican economy.

Machel remained committed to realizing a revolution from the armed struggle, but not wedded to any single means for achieving that end. He consistently emphasized the need to retain—and in some cases regain—the confidence of the people. He remained popular, in part because Mozambicans related to Machel's personal experience as a peasant, a worker, a guerrilla, and a political militant. His resilience may be due to something highlighted by political observer John S. Saul: "What is impressive about the Mozambican leadershi…. is that the awareness of the need to sustain a genuinely dialectical relationship between leadership and mass action remains very alive…."

Unhappily for Mozambique Machel was killed in an airplane crash October 20, 1986. He was succeeded by Foreign Minister Joaquin Chissano (born 1939).


Further Reading on Samora Moises Machel

Biographical material in English on Machel is scarce. Journalist Iain Cristie's "Portrait of President Machel," in the Mozambique Independence issue of Africa Report 20 (May-June 1975), is the most accessible. Mozambique, Sowing the Seeds of Revolution (London, 1974) is a translation of some of Machel's most important speeches. Machel's "The Task of National Reconstruction in Mozambique," in Objective: Justice 7 (January-March 1975), and his interview with Allen Isaacman in Africa Report 24 (July-August 1979), also reveal his political views. Several general studies explore Mozambique's experience during Machel's lifetime. The following are among the best: John S. Saul, A Different Road: Socialism in Mozambique (1983); Allen and Barbara Isaacman, Mozambique: From Colonialism to Revolution (1983); and Thomas Henriksen, Revolution and Counterrevolution: Mozambique's War of Independence, 1964-1974 (1983). Students will find a valuable annual update of events in Mozambique in Africa Contemporary Record: Annual Survey & Documents, edited by Colin Legum and published in New York by Africana Publishing Company.


Additional Biography Sources

Christie, Iain, Samora Machel, a biography, Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Panaf, 1989.