Mozambique’s Samora Machel Review

Review by Ryan

Following the 1969 assassination of Mozambican nationalist rebel Eduardo Mondlane, his comrade Samora Machel acceded to the leadership of FRELIMO, the Mozambican Liberation Front, and served as the nation’s first president after the achievement of independence from Portugal in 1975. Mozambique’s Samora Machel: A Life Cut Short tells his story. Allen and Barbara Isaacman, American academics who became personally acquainted with their subject while working in Mozambique during the 1970s, have written a sympathetic but not uncritical biography. The book covers Machel’s developmental influences, radicalization, and confrontation not only with imperialism but with those within the ranks of his own movement who sought to turn a strictly anticolonial struggle into a war against all whites. The Isaacmans cast Machel as “a tragically flawed hero” whose initial victories as a nationalist-internationalist and socialist – Mozambican sovereignty, increased literacy, socialized medicine, and reduction in infant mortality – were undermined by economic mismanagement, creeping authoritarianism, and the ruin wrought by war with the RENAMO insurgency backed first by Rhodesia and then South Africa. “For many, in death Samora became a romanticized symbol,” the Isaacmans observe, noting that “T-shirts, caps, headdresses, and loincloths emblazoned with Samora’s portrait” can still be seen in the country; but the authors do their best to present the reader with the real man in his mix of earnestness and humor, aptitude for magnetic oratory, and a Castro-like sense of purpose and style. Machel “made many errors and was quick to anger, but he also demonstrated the capacity to listen, challenge inherited orthodoxies, and engage in self-criticism,” the Isaacmans relate. 

Some readers may be put off by Machel in his function as national disciplinarian: his government’s sanction of punitive whippings, forcible relocation of thousands to reeducation camps and state farms in an effort to rid the cities of criminals, vagrants, and “wicked women,” and the shutting down of nightclubs where rap was performed – hip-hop being rejected as “bourgeois decadence” unbecoming of an enlightened socialist society. The Isaacmans diagnose an undeniable puritanical streak in Machel’s revolutionary morality, noting that he even sent one of his daughters to a reeducation camp after she became pregnant out of wedlock, and they criticize the leader’s failure to totally live up to his rhetoric about the equality of the sexes. Overall, however, they find that he earns his place as the father of the Mozambican nation and status as an inspirational icon of social justice and patriotism. Also intriguing is the Isaacmans’ discussion of Machel’s mysterious demise in a 1986 plane crash and their skeptical assessment of the official story as endorsed by the investigative commission headed by Cecil Margo. One of the founders of the Israeli Air Force, Margo, served as a Justice on the Apartheid-era Supreme Court of South Africa and had previously been a member of a commission that had discouraged inconvenient scrutiny of the similarly questionable circumstances of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld’s death in a 1961 plane crash. Mozambique’s drift toward neoliberalism following Machel’s death leaves the authors uncertain as to “whether Samora’s vision of a society based on social and economic equality will ever be realized.” 

Find Mozambique’s Samora Machel: A Life Cut Short by Allen F. Isaacman and Barbara S. Isaacman at our Main Library.