The Death of Samora Machel
19 October 1986

Dossier MZ-0017

Premonitions and Threats


The October Crisis The Crash Regional Reaction
Accusations and Denials The Funeral of Samora Obituaries and Tributes
The three commissions of investigation The succession and aftermath The Victims of Mbuzini
Blank button The Succession to the Presidency Blank button


In the context of the sharply increasing tension between Mozambique and South Africa (see the page on the October Crisis), and even before the disaster occurred at Mbuzini, the idea that an attempt might be made on the life of Samora Machel had begun to be raised. Direct and intemperate threats by such senior South African government figures as Magnus Malan made this seem less and less improbable as the month wore on. Astonishingly, a Zimbabwean Sunday newspaper carried an article warning of the possibility on the morning of the 19th, only a few hours before Samora and his comrades were to perish at Mbuzini. A Kenyan daily had editorialised in the same vein a couple of days before.

Samora Machel saluting

Some themes that have persisted through the years can be traced back to this period. For instance, the idea that senior Mozambican «generals» were involved in a plot to make the aircraft crash has persisted up to the present day. In the absence of hard evidence, it remains entirely unclear whether this was a clever exercise in misdirection or not. In any event, it was raised even before the disaster, in an article discussing possible scenarios in Mozambique and published in the Cape Times on 15 October 1986. In the piece, Willem Steenkamp père, a defence journalist with confirmed access to high-level military sources, wrote as follows:

The Mozambican generals, aware of their fast-crumbling assets and mindful of their limited future under the present dispensation, will overthrow President Machel, put in someone else and negotiate with Renamo [emphasis added].

The article was headlined «Samora the Survivor Under Siege». In another story that was reported in both English and Portuguese, Carlos Cardoso reported a conversation with Machel early in October, in which the President revealed that an earlier attempt on his life had been foiled the previous year. Machel reportedly remarked ‘I am in their way’.

The veteran South African journalist-in-exile Colin Legum, in his newsletter Third World Reports, was one of the first observers to pull together and describe the components of the burgeoning crisis, which he rightly identified as Mozambique’s ‘gravest hour’ since achieving independence over ten years earlier. Read together, the reports listed below – from a variety of sources – convey a mood of considerable contemporary concern about the lengths to which the apartheid regime might actually go to protect its perceived interests. When the much-feared worst actually happened, the suspicion that South Africa was in some way involved was far from being an irrational response to events. The regime itself had, through its own rhetoric and its own behaviour, created the environment in which it immediately became a suspect in what was widely believed to have been a crime.

MHN Resources

15 October 1986
Willem Steenkamp. Samora the survivor. Cape Times [Cape Town] (15 October 1986). In English. Click here to download a PDF file, size 161 kb. One of a regular column entitled ‘On Parade: a Defence Review’.

15 October 1986
Colin Legum. Mozambique’s gravest hour since independence. Third World Reports [Richmond, Surrey] no.HQ-2 (15 October 1986), p.1-5. In English. Click here to download a PDF file, size 374 kb. Colin Legum (1919-2003) was a South African journalist working in exile. In this piece, one of the first analyses to identify the components of the ongoing regional crisis, he states that the MNR have overrun ‘at least a dozen’ important towns and taken the bridge over the Zambezi. He says that the hawks rule the roost in Pretoria and are flexing their muscles.

17 October 1986
To let Machel go would be tragic. Daily Nation [Nairobi] (17 October 1986). In English. Click here to download a PDF file, size 130 kb. An editorial in the Kenyan daily asks if African states are prepared ‘to allow President Machel to fall’ in the light of MNR advances, and condemns the ‘current cowardly lethargy’.

19 October 1986
Don’t again break this broken reed. Sunday Times [Johannesburg] (19 October 1986). In English. Click here to download a PDF file, size 145 kb. The Sunday Times published on the morning of the day of the disaster says that Pretoria must resist the temptation to ‘put the boot squarely into the disintegrating form of what was once a country named Mozambique’. This advice simultaneously over-estimates the degree of ‘disintegration’ inside Mozambique and under-estimates the recklessness of the apartheid government of that time.

19 October 1986
Pretoria wants to assassinate Machel. Sunday Mail [Harare] (19 October 1986). In English. Click here to download a PDF file, size 534 kb. On the morning of the day when the Mbuzini disaster occured, Zimbabwe’s Sunday Mail ran a prescient story to the effect that President Machel was likely to be an assassination target in the event of a direct military intervention in Mozambique by the South African military.

South African soldier by the wreckage

Above: A South African soldier approaches part of the fuselage of the wrecked Tupolev, apparently at night. The wreckage was subsequently broken up and sold by local scrap-merchants.

21 October 1986
Assassination rumours then tragedy. Herald [Harare] (21 October 1986). In English. Click here to download a PDF file, size 84 kb.

21 October 1986
Pretoria-Maputo tension soared before death crash. Herald [Harare] (21 October 1986). In English. Click here to download a PDF file, size 393 kb.

23 October 1986
Plot to assassinate Machel was uncovered last year. Herald [Harare] (23 October 1986). In English. Click here to download a PDF file, size 80 kb. Reports informal remarks by Samora Machel on 11 October 1986, in which he revealed to journalists, including Carlos Cardoso, that an assassination attempt using bazookas had been foiled in November 1985.

26 October 1986
Carlos Cardoso. Some lessons for Pretoria: the plot to kill Samora Machel. City Press [Johannesburg] (26 October 1986). In English. Click here to download a PDF file, size 503 kb. Refers to the claim that South Africa had plotted to kill Samora in November 1985, unsurprisingly dismissed as «absurd, ludicrous and sick propaganda» by the SADF.

2 November 1986
Carlos Cardoso. Jornalista moçambicano previa, Samora um alvo possível. Tempo [Maputo] no.838 (2 November 1986), p.84-87. In Portuguese. Click here to download a PDF file, size 1.4 Mb.