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Mozambique Anger Over a Plane Crash

5 minute read
Michael S. Serrill

It really seemed too much of a coincidence. On Oct. 6, six South African soldiers were injured by a land mine near the spot where the borders of South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland converge. General Magnus Malan, South Africa’s Defense Minister, quickly issued a stern message to Mozambican President Samora Machel. “Terror feeds on itself,” said Malan. “It eventually turns on its hosts.” Just ten days after that menacing admonition, a plane carrying Machel, 53, strayed over the South African border near the site of the land-mine explosion and crashed, killing the President and 33 others.

Anti-South African activists around the world were quick to accuse Pretoria. In Johannesburg police fired tear gas into a crowd of 250 students, most of them black, who blamed their government for Machel’s death. Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda broke into tears when he heard the news and declared, “I accuse the South Africans openly of involvement until they are proved innocent.” In Zimbabwe, thousands of youths stormed through downtown Harare, attacking whites on the streets, smashing windows and besieging South African, Malawian and U.S. offices. The worst damage was at the South African Airways ticket center, whose staff fled as the mob surged through a broken plate-glass window, smashed furniture and computer terminals, then set the building afire. Another group stoned the U.S. embassy and offices of the Malawi high commission. Malawi is the only black African state that has full diplomatic relations with Pretoria.

In fact, there was little evidence of any South African involvement in the crash. The accident occurred as Machel was returning from a Zambian summit meeting of so-called frontline black African states located near South Africa. Machel’s official plane, a Soviet-made Tupolev 134-B, took off with 44 people aboard, including a Soviet crew of five. It refueled in Lusaka, then flew across Zimbabwe and headed south toward the Mozambique capital of Maputo. Violent thunderstorms were hitting the area, and visibility was poor. Near the South African town of Komatipoort, the Soviet pilot announced he had Maputo airport in sight and descended. The Maputo airport was actually 45 miles away; the pilot may have mistaken the lights of Komatipoort for it. Moments later, about 600 ft. inside South Africa, the plane hit treetops and cartwheeled down a rainswept hillside. Among those killed, in addition to Machel, were Transport Minister Alcantara Santos, Deputy Foreign Minister Jose Lobo and the Ambassadors to Mozambique from Zambia and Zaire.

Amazingly, ten aboard the plane survived, including the Soviet pilot, Vladimir Novoselov, who was taken to a South African hospital with a broken thigh and a concussion. According to initial reports, Novoselov claimed the plane was shot down, and another survivor, Machel Bodyguard Fernando Joao, said, “We heard a shot or a bang from within the plane. The plane vibrated, and then we crashed.” The official Mozambique daily Noticias speculated that electronic interference by South Africa might have led the pilot off course.

South African officials, however, call claims of sabotage absurd, and permitted Mozambican officials across the border immediately to examine the wreckage and remove Machel’s body. Mozambicans, international civil aviation experts and Soviet experts will all take part in an investigation of the crash by the South African Department of Civil Aviation.

There was no regret at Machel’s death among leaders of the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo), the guerrilla movement that has been fighting Machel’s government with arms and logistical support from South Africa. In a statement issued in Lisbon, Renamo said Machel’s Frelimo Party “is responsible for innumerable crimes. Thus we feel no sorrow over the death of Frelimo’s chief.” Renamo said it would intensify its guerrilla operations, with the goal of the “total liberation of the country.” Through a brutal campaign that has killed thousands of civilians and uprooted many more from their homes, Renamo already controls large areas of Mozambique, including two northern provinces.

The civil war, together with a drought and famine that are among the worst in Africa, has virtually destroyed Mozambique’s economy. Despite international food aid that this year will total $200 million, Mozambican officials say thousands who have not made their way to coastal resettlement camps will die of starvation.

Machel, the country’s leader since it won independence from Portugal in 1975, had almost personally been holding Mozambique together in recent years. Once a doctrinaire Marxist, he showed more flexibility as his troubles built up. He signed an accord in 1984 with South Africa under which Mozambique promised to expel African National Congress guerrillas, who are fighting Pretoria, in return for South Africa’s pledge to stop supporting Renamo. Lately Machel had strayed from Communist orthodoxy and turned to the West for new investment.

Those changes warmed Washington’s attitude toward Mozambique. Last week President Reagan expressed “deep regret” at the death of Machel, whom he called a “voice of moderation” in the region. Reagan sent his daughter Maureen to Machel’s funeral. A collective leadership will now direct Mozambique, at least for a while. It is not certain whether the new government will follow Machel’s gradual opening to the West.

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