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Waiting for the new Samora Machels

By Takura Zhangazha

Most regions in what is generally referred to as the Global South have iconic political heroes whose legacies straddle across borders and varying nationalisms. Latin America has its fair share and among the historical luminaries of that region is Simon Bolivar, while the Caribbean region has Toussaint Louverture.

The late Mozambican president Samora Machel
The late Mozambican president Samora Machel

Not that these key figures in the histories of their respective regions were without fault, but it is a fact that they are held in high esteem by significant majorities in the regions they lived in and beyond. Southern Africa also has key historical figures particularly in our 20th century’s struggles against colonialism.

Among the most exceptional of these figures is Samora Moises Machel, the former president of the Republic of Mozambique and a key player in the successes of the liberation struggles of not only his own country, but also of Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia.

His exceptionalism as a leader is in the same league as that of the late Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. The notable difference between the two is that Machel had fought a liberation war and also had to shoulder the burden of having a hostile apartheid state as his immediate neighbour while at the same time offering solidarity and support to liberation movements from at least three Southern African countries.

Against all odds, Machel held firm even where and when the Rhodesian and South African minority governments bombed not only Zimbabwean and South African refugees and leaders, but also citizens of his own country, Mozambique.

This is a narrative that is well known in Zimbabwe and perhaps more appreciated by those that were involved in the liberation struggle as well as those that are old enough to remember his tragic death in a suspicious plane crash on October 19 1986. But the issue here is not about his untimely death.

Instead, in remembering Machel, we are remembering our own history. He may have been larger than life and one of the most popular regional leaders of his time, but what is most emblematic about him is his deliberate and active intention to see the whole of Southerrn Africa free from colonialism and for the region’s population to directly benefit from the resultant independence.

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It was also his ability to provide leadership in the most dire of circumstances and his ability to understand a ‘revolutionary’ moment when it has arrived that separated him from the rest of the Southern African leadership.

Whether one looks at his decision to allow the main Zimbabwean liberation movements to operate from Mozambican soil, through to his insistence on negotiations with the British, and even where he signed the somewhat controversial Nkomati Agreement with apartheid South Africa, when only at least five years later, even the ANC would begin direct but secret talks with the same.

All of these characteristics and examples point to a leader who was both visionary and pragmatic.

While some have argued that Machel’s domestic socialist experiment was doomed to fail, within the context of the global Cold War, a hostile apartheid South Africa and a foreign sponsored civil war, it is important to observe that Machel remained a principled leader.

This is the sense that he neither succumbed to either cold war camp (he even met Ronald Reagan) nor departed from the values that informed his country and the region’s liberation.

Where we fast forward to contemporary times,one is struck by the unfortunate realisation that there are fewer and fewer leaders of Machel’s ilk that are left in the Southern African region. Not that they must all be veterans of one liberation struggle or the other, let alone be as charismatic as was Machel. Neither are they expected to be socialists nor even as revolutionary.

All that would be expected is that they follow Machel’s principled and selfelss leadership example.

This is particularly so in the wake of aggressive liberal interventionism in Africa by the West as well as the equally aggressive and publicly unaccountable pursuit of African raw materials by the East.

Simultaneously, these two processes have led in part to the fortification of elitist leadership styles by our contemporary heads of state and government which is motivated by the pursuit of unbridled personal wealth via proximity to international capital at the expense of the majority poor.

For all his faults and unlike our contemporary leaders, Machel kept in touch with the people. In our time and across the Southern African region, leaders are seeking more and more to stay in touch with the next big mining or oil company for personal aggrandizement as well as gatekeeping the commonwealth for personal benefit. In essence our regional and national politics has come to be characterised by politics that is bereft of principle and democratic purpose unlike the politics that defined Machel.

So as it is, we remain grateful to the people of Mozambique primarily for their solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe during our liberation struggle but also for giving Southern Africa Samora Machel, a regional revolutionary. And we can only hope for new Samoras not only from Mozambique but from the entirety of Southern Africa. Also not only by way of names given to newborns but by way of people-centered, principled and democratic leadership.

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity Takura-Zhangazha.blogspot.com