Heads of the state and prominent political leaders are regulars of the biography genre, especially when troubled circumstances surround their trajectories or deaths. The life story of Mozambique’s first president and the mysterious accident that ended his life have been told previously by several authors 1, however this newest and concise biography by the American scholars Allen and Barbara Isaacman offers an interesting and updated reading of several controversial aspects of the revered leader and the political context around him. As participant observers of the revolution led by Samora Machel after independence in 1975, the authors were able to collect a wide variety of written and oral sources from different segments of Mozambique’s society, which is clearly a strength of this account. Their double engagement as researchers and activists in Mozambique’s postcolonial developments definitely shaped their narrative, although this did not prevent them from making a critical reading of some aspects of Machel’s personality and political decisions. The book is indeed rich in details about his personal and family life, a decision that the authors defend in the prologue, “not only to humanize Samora, with all his foibles, flaws, and passions, but also to challenge constructions that separate public from private and political from personal” (p. 35).
The first chapter deals with Samora Machel’s early years (1933–1950s), a period of his life poorly documented. Yet, the authors’ historical knowledge and extensive research on the Limpopo valley 2, the rural area where Machel was born, enrich the scarce biographical evidence with detailed information about the hardships of colonial agricultural schemes and other abuses inflicted on small farmers such as Machel’s family. These woes, the authors argue, shaped “Samora’s initial radicalization” (p. 50) and paved the ground for his later political engagement during his education in the capital, which features in the second chapter. The period until 1963, which covers Samora’s training as a nurse and work at Miguel Bombarda Hospital in Lourenço Marques, is mainly reconstructed through testimonies from former colleagues, which provided interesting details about his personal life at the time. These allow us to know about his passion for boxing and music, or that he had a relationship with a fellow nurse despite living together with the mother of his four children. As trivial as they may seem, such aspects are helpful to grasp some of the contradictions between the public figure and the private man. As the authors point, “although a critical political thinker, Samora not only failed to question conventional patriarchal norms but actively and selfishly took advantage of them as did many other revolutionaries of his time.” (p. 58).
The next two chapters overlap chronologically but deal with different aspects of Samora Machel's life since he left Mozambique in 1963 due to the pressure and surveillance he faced from the Portuguese secret police. Chapter three follows his first steps within the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) and outlines the context of the internal struggles that shaped Samora's rise within the movement. At least twice it is mentioned that his initial plan when contacting FRELIMO was to obtain a scholarship to continue his studies in Moscow. However, once he reached Dar es Salaam and met with members of the front, he abandoned his long-term objective all at once and adapted to the tactical needs of the liberation movement, unlike many other fellow Mozambicans with similar ambitions 3. The authors do not elaborate further on which seems to be a major change of plans, even if the motivation behind it might have shed light on other personality traits. The reader might question whether Samora selflessly gave up his dream of personal advancement or, on the contrary, shrewdly decided on military training as a gateway to quickly climb the ranks of the movement. The fact is that this decision placed him in a position of some responsibility from the outset: after leading the contingent of trainees sent to Algeria for six months, he was appointed commander of the military training camp at Kongwa first and later on FRELIMO’s camp at Nachingwea, and in 1966 he became FRELIMO’s defense secretary. A general description of the challenges he faced in each of these positions while organizing the armed struggle can be found in chapter four. Besides the lack of weapons or the urgent need to recruit a large number of sympathizers in the countryside, the inclusion of women as guerilla fighters is listed as another issue that increasingly occupied Samora at the time. In this regard, the authors acknowledged that his approach to gender issues evolved as a result of “war experiences, pragmatic considerations and relationship with Josina” (p. 94), a fellow militant that he married in 1969. They nevertheless criticized that “his thinking had not sufficiently evolved to include gender oppression in the household and the community” (p. 95), which seems to indicate that gender equality was not seen as a goal in itself, but as a means that could be adapted according to circumstances to achieve a greater end, the longed-for revolution.
Samora Machel is a referent of African socialist thinking and the authors show throughout the book where he gets his reputation from. The work initiated in training camps like Nachingwea “a microcosm of FRELIMO’s imagined new Mozambican society” (p. 87) and in the liberated zones consolidated after independence in a series of ambitious policies that aimed at building a new country and a new man. The social, political and economic transformations that followed after 1975 are addressed in the fifth and sixth chapters. Samora is depicted as an “impatient leader” (p. 118) that “could even convince a cadaver” with his grand speeches and “magnetic presence” (p. 124). Yet, despite his laudable intentions and great expectations to transform the life of the Mozambican people, he lacked the wisdom to foresee potential gaps, misunderstandings and problems of their rollout. The authors recognize that the major policies of his administration “often underestimated social complexities on the ground” (p. 118) or “were never fully implemented” (p. 141). They are critical of many of the projects initiated in the post-independence period such as the nationalization of the housing sector which fostered corruption, cultural politics that excluded and alienated certain religious groups, or the rural communal villages that failed to adapt to local practices and traditions. However, their criticism tends to blame the mistakes on the leader's temperament and revolutionary fervor and avoids a deeper analysis of the disciplinary and authoritarian tendencies that were beginning to emerge. In their interpretation of the abuses committed in the reeducation camps, for instance, they point to the party's political commissar at the time, Fernando Guebuza, as being directly responsible for the imprisonment without trial of more than 15,000 citizens in the early years of independence. However, if, as they later explain, Samora had "a dominant role" (p. 130) over his ministers and subordinates, it is hard to believe that he did not act immediately to prevent a potential degeneration of the much-vaunted restorative justice.
Domestic, regional and foreign policy issues are interwoven throughout the book, an aspect that perfectly reflects the developments of the Cold War in the Southern African region and the influence that this had in Samora’s political and, ultimately, personal life. As set out in chapters six, seven and eight, South Africa's destabilization campaign not only sowed violence and destruction in parts of Mozambique through its support for the rebels of Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO) but also targeted Samora Machel himself. The events surrounding the tragic plane crash that killed the Mozambican leader and several of his top advisors in 1986 are dissected in chapter eight. Although after so many years there is no conclusive evidence of the involvement of the South African government in the accident, the authors put together a series of testimonies from the South African Trust and Reconciliation Commission that leave little room for doubt. “Pointing toward murder” (p. 192) rather than an unfortunate accident, certainly contributed to consolidate a rhetoric about the genuine revolutionary hero, all too uncomfortable for those who opposed the triumph of the revolution in Mozambique. It is not surprising therefore that the fallen leader is still present in Mozambique's popular memory and culture as described by the authors in the last chapter, sometimes even imagined as a sort of holy figure. “He (Samora) would not have permitted all the corruption that exists today. He cared for us” (p. 210), reads one of the testimonies included in this part of the book. However, it is inevitable not to relate the persistent deviations in the system with the vanguard party structure created by and around Machel in the late 1970s, which indeed stifled debate and dissent and favored the entrenchment of corrupt bureaucracies in the years after his death. A more elaborate discussion of this question would certainly enrich the critical analysis of Samora's political legacy.
In this dense and yet compact book, Barbara and Allen Isaacman unveil the various facets of a charismatic and yet harsh leader, the “tough disciplinarian and loving parent” (p. 144) to his own family and to the Mozambican nation he strove to build. They have achieved a compelling narrative of how Samora shaped post-colonial events in Mozambique and how the leader's personality and life trajectory were transformed by these same events. Students and all those readers interested in learning more about Mozambique's recent history will find this book a great introductory read.
1 Ian Christie: Samora Machel. A Biography, London: 1987; António Alves Gomes / Albie Sachs: Samora Machel. Cape Town 2018; António Sopa: Samora. Man of the people, Maputo 2001.
2 Allen Isaacman: Cotton is the mother of poverty. Peasants, work, and rural struggle in colonial Mozambique, 1938-1961, Portsmouth, N.H. 1996.
3 The clash between personal/educational aspirations and FRELIMO’s revolutionary project was a source of serious troubles in the late 1960s when several student protests led to the closure of the Mozambique Institute, FRELIMO’s educational complex in Tanzania. See: Michael G. Panzer: The Pedagogy of Revolution. Youth, Generational Conflict, and Education in the Development of Mozambican Nationalism and the State, 1962–1970, in: Journal of Southern African Studies, 35 (2009) 4, pp. 803-820.