The Greatest African Leaders: Samora Machel

By Joburg Post

Samora Moisés Machel (September 29, 1933 – October 19, 1986) was a Mozambican military commander and politician. A socialist in the tradition of Marxism-Leninism, he served as the first President of Mozambique from the country's independence in 1975. Machel died in office in 1986 when his presidential aircraft crashed near the Mozambique-South Africa border. He was born in the village of Madragoa (today's Chilembene), Gaza Province, Mozambique, to a family of farmers. His grandfather had been an active collaborator of Gungunhana. Machel grew up in this farming village and attended mission elementary school. In 1942, he was sent to school in the town of Zonguene in Gaza Province. The school was run by Catholic missionaries who educated the children in Portuguese language and culture. Although having completed the fourth grade, Machel never completed his secondary education. However, he had the prerequisite certificate to train as a nurse anywhere in Portugal at the time, since the nursing schools were not degree-conferring institutions. Machel started to study nursing in the capital city of Lourenço Marques (today Maputo), beginning in 1954.

In the 1950s, he saw some of the fertile lands around his farming community on the Limpopo River appropriated by the provincial government and worked by white settlers who developed a wide range of new infrastructure for the region. Unable to complete formal training at the Miguel Bombarda Hospital in Lourenço Marques, he got a job working as an aide in the same hospital and earned enough to continue his education at night school. He worked at the hospital until he left the country to join the Mozambican nationalist struggle in neighbouring Tanzania.

Political Leadership
While Machel succeeded in gaining external recognition for the Frelimo regime, he hopelessly overestimated his party's ability to unite the peoples of Mozambique. The exclusion from the government of influential groups is an important reason for the growth of the Renamo movement and the civil war that has plagued the country for the past decade. Although a Shangana by birth, as an African nationalist, Machel believed that ethnic loyalties obstruct nation-building. Instead of consolidating Frelimo as a mass movement, however, he transformed it into an exclusive elitist party with restricted membership. In the communist world these activist power monopolies are known as Marxist-Leninist vanguard parties which subdue ethnic rivalry by mobilizing the population and by integrating the divided peoples by means of highly organized party structures. In this way a sort of stability is achieved. 


Machel's major legacy is the unity which he achieved in ‘Frelimo despite its having to function in a culturally heterogeneous society. This was facilitated by the organization, discipline and coercion characteristic of communist systems. Yet, of all the Marxist-Leninist parties in Africa, Frelimo has the least factionalism. This is mainly due to Machel's persuasive leadership. There is no doubt that Machel's ideological blinkers, his lack of formal training, and his limited insight into economic problems contributed to a great extent to Mozambique's currently desperate situation. Nevertheless, he was responsible for the rapid expansion of education and health services.


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