The death of Samora Machel

Mozambique’s first president, Samora Machel, died on 19 October 1986 when his plane, a Soviet Tupolev 134, crashed into a hillside at Mbuzini, just inside South Africa. He was returning to Maputo from a summit held in Mbala, Zambia. If there was a decisive date in the crisis leading to Machel’s death it was 11 September 1986, when Machel flew to Malawi to confront the ageing dictator Hastings Banda of the possible consequences of his continuing support for the apartheid regime’s surrogate army in Mozambique, the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo). When Banda proved uncooperative, Machel openly threatened his regime. On his return, he told reporters ‘the South African military use Malawian territory to destabilise, to destroy the People’s Republic of Mozambique’. In response, the Mozambican government ‘will put missiles all along the Malawian border. Secondly, we will close Malawi’s route through Mozambique to Zimbabwe and South Africa. Let them find some other route.’

Following these threats to the only African government allied to South Africa, the noises from Pretoria took on an increasingly harsh and belligerent tone. A landmine explosion in the Kangwane Bantustan on 6 October was the pretext for South African defence minister, Magnus Malan, to menace Machel personally. Malan invoked the 1984 Nkomati non-aggression pact between South Africa and Mozambique, a pact which his government had repeatedly violated through its continued support for Renamo. ‘The Nkomati Accord and landlines cannot exist side by side,’ said Malan. ‘If President Machel chooses landmines, South Africa will react accordingly … If he chooses terrorism and revolution, he will clash head on with South Africa.’

South African military spokesmen fulminated that African National Congress and South African Communist Party (SACP) leader Joe Slovo had been seen in Maputo with high-ranking government officials. (This was not a startling intelligence discovery – Machel and Slovo had, very publicly, stood shoulder to shoulder in March 1986 at the Maputo funeral of SACP General Secretary Moses Mabhida.) The Frontline States held an emergency summit in Maputo on 12 October at which they declared that ‘South Africa has already embarked on the road of fascism and of war against the peoples of southern Africa’. The summit backed Machel’s tough stance against Malawi, denouncing Banda’s regime for its ‘complicity in the terrorist campaign against Mozambique’.

Samora Machel’s death and South African radar
Paul Fauvet, AIM, December 1986

One major unanswered question concerning the crash of President Samora Machel’s Tupolev 134 on 19 October 1986 is why South African air traffic control did not warn the pilot that he was off course and in danger of entering South African airspace.The plane had been tracked on South African radar for hundreds of kilometres. According to the South African paper Business Day of 21 October, ‘a top government source said “our guys had the plane on their radar, even when it was still over Zimbabwe”’. Yet no warning was given to the doomed Tupolev, even as it headed for a militarily sensitive area. For the corner of the eastern Transvaal where the crash took place, near the junction of the Mozambican, Swazi and South African borders, is a total air exclusion zone.

It is also where at least two landmines had exploded in the previous fortnight, and military garrisons in the region had been strengthened in the days immediately preceding the crash. Only a week after the disaster did the South African press address the problem of the radar. ‘South African monitors paid little heed to Machel flight’, announced a headline in the Sunday Star of 26 October. According to this story, when the plane disappeared from the radar screens, officials ‘thought nothing of it’, since it was not in South African airspace. But, if they thought it was so unimportant, why had the radar been following it from Zimbabwe? The radars must also have detected, while it was still well inside Mozambique, that the plane’s course was taking it into South Africa. On 1 November, South African Foreign Minister Roelof Botha tried to explain away the behaviour of the South African radar operators in a television interview on the programme Good Morning, South Africa. According to Botha, the flight ‘just disappeared from the screen. No-one monitoring that radar could or would have imagined that there was anything strange about it.

‘Every radar station has what we call a horizon beyond which it cannot see any object,’ said Botha. ‘You cannot see an aircraft once it has passed over a mountain, for instance, and is on the other side.’ ‘There are quite a number of flights in that vicinity of the Kruger Park and so on,’ he continued. So the radar operators ‘must be seeing virtually all the flights fading or disappearing at one stage or another’.

In this interview Botha tried to make out that there is heavy air traffic down the Mozambique/South Africa border at 21.00 on a Sunday night (in fact, as far as is known, the Tupolev was the only flight in the area that night), and that the radar lost the presidential plane when it disappeared behind a hill. In other words, the Foreign Minister would like us to believe that South African radar is rather primitive and inefficient. In reality, South Africa possesses a highly sophisticated integrated military and civilian computer-assisted radar system, whose two main purposes are to assist in South African air strikes into neighbouring countries and to detect any plane entering South African airspace. A good radar system needs to be placed high up, so that it can ‘look’ down to avoid the problem of planes hiding behind hills. Several radar stations located a good distance from one another will also make it difficult for any plane, whether accidentally or by design, to use the landscape to ‘disappear’ from radar vision. This is, naturally, the kind of system we find in South Africa. Furthermore, it is not very secret. The South African papers themselves have written openly about it.

One of the main radar installations is at Mariepskop, 2,000 metres up, on the edge of the Drakensberg mountains. This is what the Johannesburg Star of 8 February 1975 had to say about this installation: ‘Only metres away from where the Drakensberg escarpment falls to the Lowveld, the big scanner whirls silently around. It can pick up most aircraft movements from a large chunk of Botswana in the west, to Rhodesia in the north, to southern Mozambique and Natal in the east. Height finders are positioned nearby. They can calculate the height of any aircraft picked up by the scanner.’ Mariepskop is an early warning station, designed to give the alert against ‘hostile aircraft approaching South Africa from over her borders’. ‘All information gathered by the softly sweeping scanner – aircraft appear as tiny pinpricks of light on the screens – can be fed in computer form to the headquarters of South Africa’s radar defence system at Devon. Virtually instant computer feedback from Devon can supply Mariepskop with the information needed

‘Besides Devon and Mariepskop, there are two other stations in the northern radar system, covering each other. The zones covered by the four stations overlap so each base can see the one next door.’ In other words, it should have been quite impossible for the presidential Tupolev to escape radar surveillance. These radar defences are no joke: according to the Star of 29 November 1975, the Devon computer centre is ‘buried under reinforced concrete capable of withstanding a ten kiloton nuclear explosion’.

The computers at Devon try to work out whether any intruding aircraft is ‘friend or foe’. If they think it may be hostile, ‘the controllers at Devon can call on a whole range of defences, including Mirages and other jet fighters, surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft cannon’. This was what the South African radar system was like over a decade ago. Now it is even more sophisticated, particularly through South Africa’s acquisition of the Plessey AR-3D computerised radar system, which was integrated into its air defences in 1982 … The 1979 Defence White Paper also made it clear that there were to be no ‘holes’ in the radar system. It said, ‘The South African Air Force is constantly carrying out air reconnaissance. Various sensors are used in this process to obtain maximum information. Reconnaissance systems are constantly being modernised in order to keep abreast of operational requirements.’ Thus, from documents that are public knowledge, it is evident that South Africa can keep its entire border area under 24-hour radar surveillance, and the chance of any aircraft evading this is vanishingly small. The conclusion to be drawn is that the Tupolev was on the radar screens up until the moment of its crash. The radar operators knew it was off course, knew it was entering South African airspace, knew the Libombos mountains posed a serious threat to the aircraft, and yet no warning was given no preventive action was taken.

The computer centre at Devon doubtless identified the plane as Samora Machel’s Tupolev. After all, there was nothing secret about the President’s trip to Zambia, and the radars would have followed its journey from Maputo to Zambia earlier in the day. No other plane was expected along that route. The South African authorities knew whose plane it was, they knew exactly when and where it crashed – and yet they did not inform the Mozambican authorities for another ten and a half hours. The first message was sent to Maputo at 06.50 the following morning.

Featured Image: Samora Machel. Image: Club of Magazine