Samora Machel: the African marxist who “flirted with democracy”

It is thirty-five years since the death from a plane crash of Mozambique's independence hero Samora Machel, an uncompromising Marxist…

It is thirty-five years since the death from a plane crash of Mozambique’s independence hero Samora Machel, an uncompromising Marxist who flirted with democracy.His aircraft, a Russian-made Antonov plane crashed into the Lebombo mountains at Mbuzini in Mpumalanga Province in October 1986 as he was returning to Maputo from a so-called Frontline States summit in Zambia.

To this day there is no conclusive theory about what caused one of Africa’s most poignant tragedies involving a popular statesman but the then apartheid government in South Africa has been named severally as the prime suspect.

Machel had backed and helped galvanise support for the liberation struggle against apartheid and it was no secret to him and his allies that he was marked for elimination.

Paying tribute to him on the 35th anniversary of his death, President Cyril Ramaphosa described Southern Africa’s staunchest Marxist-Leninist at the time as an unmistakable advocate of the kind of democracy that would facilitate accountable institutions, capable leaders and ultimately peace and stability in an otherwise precarious region.

Ramaphosa attended a ceremony at the crash site with Mozambique’s current President Filipe Nyusi.

Like many South Africans involved in the thick and thrust of the  anti-apartheid struggle, Ramaphosa feels his country is heavily indebted to Machel thanks to his contribution to ensuring that freedom finally reigns in South Africa.

Like the majority of African leaders of his generation, Machel ruled Mozambique in the form of a one-party state and allowed elections in which other parties were excluded.

This was in the 1980s when the roots of democracy on the continent were yet to find the right soil from which to sprout their shoots. 

However, unlike most African leaders of his ilk Machel had identified himself with those aspects of democracy which would encourage leadership by social consensus.

Ramaphosa inferred this in his speech saying “we need leaders who follow in the footsteps of Samora Machel, who are selfless, who are committed, who are dedicated to serve, and who are prepared to sacrifice, we need leaders who put the needs and the aspirations of the people above all else.”

Perhaps this was where democracy and Marxism converged to make sense to Machel as one being an inverted side to the other, two different but still very similar sides to the same coin.

This is not to pretend that Machel was a democrat but if anything he was a Marxist who embraced “some of the good things in democracy”

As early as 1975 when he led Mozambique to independence through a hard-fought liberation war against colonial power Portugal, Machel flirted with the idea of democracy.

He used the “state of people’s democracy” as a label to explain leadership structure of the worker-peasant alliance, formed to bring an “irreversible end” to all the vestiges of colonialism including its exploitative system against the poor.

In 1983, the ruling party FRELIMO restated its commitment to Marxist principles but Machel’s government owned up to mistakes in its agricultural policy which was informed by Leninist orientations and opted for more liberal measures.