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Samora Moises Machel

Samora Moises Machel

A dedicated military man and socialist revolutionary, Samora Moises Machel (1933-1986) presided over the independence of Mozambique from Portugal in 1975 and became its first president.

Samora Moises Machel was born on September 29, 1933, in a village in the District of Gaza in the south of Mozambique. Like the great majority of Mozambicans of his generation, he grew up in an agricultural village and attended mission elementary school. Machel completed the fourth class—the prerequisite certificate for any higher education. Most youngsters aspired to complete elementary school and perhaps learn a skill, but most found it difficult. Machel's hopes for higher education were frustrated by Catholic missionaries who refused to grant him a scholarship. Without financial assistance it was difficult for most Africans to pay school fees, room, and board. Many families needed the income earned by all family members just to survive.

Machel hoped to train as a nurse—one of the few professions which had been open to blacks, albeit on a subordinate basis, since the early 20th century. Unable to secure the fees to complete formal training at the Miguel Bombarda Hospital in Lourenco Marques (today Maputo), he got a job working as an aide in the hospital and earned enough to continue his education at night school. He worked at the hospital until he left the country to join the nationalist struggle.

The Progress of a Revolutionary

Machel, like so many others, suffered under colonial rule. He saw the fertile lands of his farming community on the Limpopo river appropriated by white settlers. His family worked unprofitable and arduous cotton plots to comply with the colonial government's cotton cultivation scheme, and they lost loved ones to work accidents and illness resulting from the unsafe and unhealthy work conditions prevailing in the mines, farms, and construction companies which employed thousands of Mozambicans. As an educated black working in the capital city in the heyday of colonialism, Machel faced the arrogance and racism despised by black workers throughout the country.

The visit of Eduardo Mondlane to Lourenco Marques and Gaza in 1961 was a turning point for Mondlane and many others. Samora Machel, among others, urged the educator Mondlane to dedicate himself to the nationalist cause. Since the late 1950s Mozambicans from many backgrounds had left the country to organize an offensive. Mondlane accepted the challenge to unite the many currents of Mozambican nationalism into a front with a better chance for success. In June 1962 Mondlane accepted Tanzanian President Nyerere's invitation to convene the principal nationalist groups in Dar es Salaam. The leaders of these groups agreed to form the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo) under Mondlane's leadership. Thereafter, the stream of Mozambicans making their way to Tanzania to take up arms became a river. By August 1963 Samora Machel had made his way to Tanzania to join the insurgents.

Machel was a member of the first group of Frelimo soldiers sent to Algeria for military training. Upon completion of training, Machel returned to Tanzania to serve as an instructor at Frelimo's Kongwa military training camp. By September 25, 1964, when Frelimo launched the armed struggle, 250 guerrillas had been trained for combat. Machel coordinated guerrilla strategy for the Niassa campaign. Two years later, upon the death of Frelimo's Secretary of Defense Filipe Magaia, Machel became secretary of defense and then commander-in-chief of the army—positions he held throughout the war.

Machel developed Frelimo strategies from his positions within the war zone, propagandizing revolutionary values among the population of areas held by the guerrillas. Machel firmly held that political and social issues were as fundamental to the viability of the guerrilla war as were military tactics. His qualities as a tough soldier and a persuasive speaker won him favor among his cadres. He also enjoyed the confidence and respect of Frelimo President Mondlane. By 1968, when tension due to conflicting political visions among competing factions within the leadership reached crisis proportions, Mondlane, sensing the imminent danger of assassination, remarked to a close friend: "They are determined to kill me…. But I am not worried any more. We really do have a collective leadership, a good leadership. Frelimo—the movement—is greater than one man. They don't understand that…. That Samora, they don't know him. That man is brilliant. He understands."

On February 3, 1969, Mondlane was killed by a parcel bomb. It was then nearly impossible to maintain unity among factions. In April 1969 a presidential council was elected comprised of Uria Simango (former vice president), Samora Machel, and Marcelino dos Santos (former secretary for foreign affairs). In November 1969 Simango was suspended from the council, and in February 1970 he was expelled from Tanzania. Machel became acting president and dos Santos acting vice president. At the fourth session of Frelimo's Central Committee in May 1970 their positions were confirmed and Simango was formally expelled from the party. The faction within Frelimo which opposed the emphasis on a prolonged guerrilla struggle in favor of combining military action with the establishment of socialism left with Simango and eventually organized an opposition movement.

Machel, like Mondlane, was committed to the transformation of Mozambican society. He claimed: "Of all the things we have done, the most important—the one that history will record as the principal contribution of our generation—is that we understand how to turn the armed struggle into a Revolution; that we realized that it was essential to create a new mentality to build a new society." As Frelimo president he continued his efforts to instill new attitudes among the Mozambican people in the war zones. Observers quipped that he travelled "…. with the headquarters in his pocket." Machel had a special colleague in the person of his wife and comrade-in-arms Josina Abiatar Muthemba Machel. They were married in May 1969.

Josina Muthemba Machel first tried to leave Mozambique to join Frelimo forces in Tanzania in March 1964, but was apprehended and imprisoned by the Portuguese. She finally escaped to Tanzania and in August 1965 she was assigned to organize political education within the women's unit on the Niassa front. From 1965 to 1971 she continued as a guerrilla and political organizer. By 1970 it was clear that her health was deteriorating. Nonetheless, in March 1971 she undertook a march into Cabo Delgado, but was ultimately evacuated to a hospital in Dar es Salaam where she died on April 7, 1971. Today she is remembered as a revolutionary heroine. In 1975 Machel married Graca Simbine, also a Frelimo militant. Simbine became Mozambique's minister of education.

Under Machel's leadership Frelimo's military made some key inroads and suffered some devastating setbacks. He emphasized the expansion of the military effort, but insisted that it proceed hand in hand with the political effort. The armed struggle gained momentum in 1973-1974. In 1974 a combination of factors—not the least of which was Frelimo's tenacious military drive—led to the 25th of April military coup in Portugal and the subsequent collapse of Portuguese colonialism.

Independence and First President

At this key juncture Machel and the Frelimo leadership held out for full independence and progress toward socialism, rejecting overtures toward compromise. They increased military pressure, and by September 1974 Portugal agreed to grant Mozambique independence under Frelimo rule on June 25, 1975.

During Mozambique's first decade of independence Samora Machel—President Samora, as he was popularly known in Mozambique—faced the immensely difficult task of national reconstruction. He spearheaded socialization of services and nationalization of wealth and oversaw the transformation of Frelimo into a Marxist-Leninist party in 1977. By the early 1980s, however, increasing guerrilla war waged by a somewhat motley collection of opposition groups, a period of destructive floods followed by a devastating regional drought, strategic errors in the state economic planning sector, and a world-wide economic recession combined to create a crisis situation in Mozambique. The government found itself increasingly unable to feed, defend, and service its people.

Machel remained characteristically pragmatic—taking responsibility for both popular and unpopular decisions. He imposed economic sanctions on the Rhodesian government, a popular act even though it caused severe economic consequences for the Mozambican economy. He also signed the unpopular Incomati Accord, a non-aggression pact with Mozambique's principal foe, the Union of South Africa. He signed the accord hoping to alleviate the combination of economic and military pressure which was increasingly undermining the viability of the Mozambican economy.

Machel remained committed to realizing a revolution from the armed struggle, but not wedded to any single means for achieving that end. He consistently emphasized the need to retain—and in some cases regain—the confidence of the people. He remained popular, in part because Mozambicans related to Machel's personal experience as a peasant, a worker, a guerrilla, and a political militant. His resilience may be due to something highlighted by political observer John S. Saul: "What is impressive about the Mozambican leadershi…. is that the awareness of the need to sustain a genuinely dialectical relationship between leadership and mass action remains very alive…."

Unhappily for Mozambique Machel was killed in an airplane crash October 20, 1986. He was succeeded by Foreign Minister Joaquin Chissano (born 1939).

Further Reading

Biographical material in English on Machel is scarce. Journalist Iain Cristie's "Portrait of President Machel," in the Mozambique Independence issue of Africa Report 20 (May-June 1975), is the most accessible. Mozambique, Sowing the Seeds of Revolution (London, 1974) is a translation of some of Machel's most important speeches. Machel's "The Task of National Reconstruction in Mozambique," in Objective: Justice 7 (January-March 1975), and his interview with Allen Isaacman in Africa Report 24 (July-August 1979), also reveal his political views. Several general studies explore Mozambique's experience during Machel's lifetime. The following are among the best: John S. Saul, A Different Road: Socialism in Mozambique (1983); Allen and Barbara Isaacman, Mozambique: From Colonialism to Revolution (1983); and Thomas Henriksen, Revolution and Counterrevolution: Mozambique's War of Independence, 1964-1974 (1983). Students will find a valuable annual update of events in Mozambique in Africa Contemporary Record: Annual Survey & Documents, edited by Colin Legum and published in New York by Africana Publishing Company.

Additional Sources

Christie, Iain, Samora Machel, a biography, Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Panaf, 1989. □

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Machel, Samora Moises 1933–1986

Samora Moises Machel 19331986

President of Mozambique

At a Glance


Samora Moisés Machel became Mozambiques first president after the African country won independence from 470 years of Portuguese colonial rule. Following a Marxist ideology, Machel struggled to establish a country free of racial or tribal bias. He made medical services, legal representation, and education equally available to all citizens.

Born September 29, 1933, in the town of Chilembene in the Chokwe District of Gaza Province, Machel witnessed racial injustice as a young boy. Under Portuguese rule, his father, an indigenous farmer, was forced to accept lower prices for his crops than white farmers; compelled to grow labor-intensive cotton, which took time away from the food crops needed for his family; and forbidden to make an identifying brand on his cattle to prevent thievery. Despite these biased laws, Machels father was a successful farmer: he owned four plows and 400 head of cattle by 1940.

In 1942, Machel was sent to school in the town of Souguene in Gaza Province. The school, like all those for black children, was run by Catholic missionaries who educated the children in Portuguese language and culture. Despite Machels strong Protestant background, he was given mandatory lessons on Catholic doctrine. Machel even submitted to compulsory baptism in order to move on to secondary school. But once told that secondary education would mean automatic entry into the priesthood, Machel balked. Instead of going to high school, he studied nursing in the capital city of Lourenço Marques, beginning in 1954.

After becoming a nurse, Machel found it difficult to accept the differences in treatment between wealthy patrons and the masses of poor, indigent people. At Miguel Bombarda Hospital, where Machel worked, he noticed that indigent patients were used to test new medications and white patients received superior medical attention. Outside the hospital, Machel noted the damaging effects of colonialism in the lives of black Mozambicans.

To help remedy his and other blacks social situation, in 1961, Machel joined a students organization called the Nucleus of Mozambican Students (NESAM). NESAM had been formed by Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane, a Northwestern University-trained Mozambican, who returned to Mozambique determined to unite a small number of educated Mozambicans against colonialism so that they could pass on their knowledge to their less intellectual neighbors. Machel became an active NESAM participant despite pressure from the Portuguese governments secret police (PIDE). After PIDE began to arrest nationalists, Machel received notice that he was high on PIDEs list and fled the country for Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, in 1963. There he found a burgeoning Mozambican nationalist movement that received encouragement from Tanzanian president Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. He joined the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) in 1963, but left Tanzania shortly thereafter to gain military training in Algeria.

At a Glance

Born Samora Moisés Machel, September 29, 1933, in Chilembene, Chokwe District, Caza Province, Mozambique; died in a plane crash in South Africa, October 19, 1986; son of a farmer; married Sorita Tchaiakomo, 1956 (marriage ended); married Jostna Muthemba, 1969 (died, 1971); married Graca Simbine, September 7, 1975; children: (first marriage) Joscelina, Edelson, Olivia, Ntewane; (second marriage) Samito. Education : Attended nursing school, Miguel Bombarda Hospital, Lourenço Marques, Mozambique, 1954-1959.

Miguel Bombarda Hospital, Lourenço Marques, Mozambique, nurse, 1954-63. joined Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), 1963, serving as secretary of defense, 1966-69, president, 1970-75. President of Mozambique, 1975-86.

Upon Machels return to Tanzania in 1964, he took charge of FREUMOs embryonic Kongwa Training Camp, where he united his recruits, which included tribal youths, urban sophisticates, and a sprinkling of deserters from the Portuguese army, against colonialism. He also supervised the construction of barracks and instituted a system of troop drills with rifles made of sticks, to keep his Algerian-trained soldiers in peak condition. His method of discipline was unique in that he taught his soldiers not to obey orders blindly on threat of punishment but to obey willingly. According to a speech of Machels in Samora Machel: An African Revolutionary, discipline was a means of integration, of making the individual love our way of life so that he can consciously follow the principles and rules that guide it.

Machel moved up quickly within the FRELIMO organization and was appointed commander of FRELIMOs Defense Department after his predecessors death in a 1966 battle with the Portuguese. His new title put him on the policy-setting central committee of FRELIMO, which he used within weeks to restructure his department according to his own strategic objectives. He divided the department into 11 defense sections, which made the department efficient and allowed FRELIMO to offer social services to its increasing membership. FRELIMO ran agricultural cooperatives, literacy classes, and Peoples Shops, where necessities such as candles, sugar, and tea were sold.

As the membership of FRELIMO grew, so did the ideological rifts between its rival factions. Machel belonged to a faction that preferred governance by the working class and membership based on a commitment to nationalism. This faction insisted that all FRELIMO high school graduates spend a year working inside Mozambique before continuing with their education overseas. The opposing faction wanted the movement run by an educated elite, based on racial and tribal lines that would eliminate the membership of whites. Machels faction triumphed over the other in a brief battle. When a letter bomb killed FRELIMO leader Mondlane in 1970, Machel assumed the organizations presidency.

Machel became FRELIMOs president just as 35,000 troops from the Portuguese army attacked FRELIMO in what was called Operation Gordian Knot. FRELIMO was victorious over Portugal, and by 1974 the War of Liberation had ended. On September 8, 1974, Machel and Portuguese representatives signed the Lusaka Agreement, which awarded six out of ten ministerial posts, including the prime ministers position to FRELIMO; allowed for joint coordination of military activities by FRELIMO and Portugal to protect the ex-colony against aggression; and named June 25, 1975, as Independence Day.

Machels administration followed a one-party Marxist line. Machel nationalized all Mozambican land, including abandoned houses and businesses, assured legal representation whether or not the defendant could afford it, made education free, and nationalized health care. Even though the social programs helped Mozambicans, by 1976 the country was burdened with a sinking economy.

Machel tried to rescue the economy by limiting imports and instituting rationing. His efforts were not enough, however. In the early 1980s, during the worst drought ever to hit southern Africa, Machel made unannounced visits to factories, warehouses, and agricultural projects throughout the country. He found that inefficient management and unreliable transportation were keeping tons of food rotting in warehouses. He also noted that some government officials abused their power and their access to scarce commodities.

While Machel grappled with Mozambiques state of disrepair, he also dealt with a guerilla group known as Resistencia Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO). RENAMO terrorized Mozambicans, destroying 1,800 schools, 720 health posts, 900 shops, 1,300 vehicles, and leaving countless lives in ruins. To combat RENAMOs continual destruction, Machel instituted the death penalty and publicly executed ten men by firing squad in March of 1979. The death penalty, however, did not deter the guerrillas, and the war escalated until 1984. RENAMO had moved its training bases to South Africa after the fall of the Rhodesian government. In 1984 Machel signed a non-aggression pact called the Nkomati Accord with South African president P. W. Botha. Under the Accord, Botha agreed to stop supporting RENAMO if Mozambique would expel the military wing of South Africas nemesis, the African National Congress. Though Machel honored the Accord, Botha did not, and the fighting continued. By 1986 Machel was spending 42 percent of his national income to protect his people from RENAMO.

Mozambiques first president was never able to resolve the conflict, for his life ended suddenly on October 19, 1986, when the Tupolev TV-134 jet in which he was returning home from Zambia crashed in the Lebombo Mountains in South Africa. Explanations for the crash have included stormy weather, antiquated navigation equipment, and the possibility that South Africa had somehow lured the plane off course by a false high-frequency radio beam.



Africa Today, Africa Books Ltd., 1991.

Azevedo, Mario, Historical Dictionary of Mozambique, African Historical Dictionaries, No. 47., Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1991.

Christie, Iain, Machel of Mozambique, Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1988.

Henriksen, Thomas H., Revolution and Counterrevolution: Mozambiques War of Independence, 1964-1974, Greenwood Press, 1983.

Samora Machel: An African Revolutionary, edited by Barry Munslow, Zed Books, 1985.

Mozambique: A Country Study, edited by Harold D. Nelson, Foreign Area Studies, American University, U.S. Government, Research Completed 1984.

Swift, Kerry, Mozambique and the Future, Nelson, 1974.


Africa Report, May-June 1984, p. 19.

National Geographic, August 1964, p. 197.

New York Times, June 29, 1975, section IV, p. 3.

Gillian Wolf

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Machel, Samora

Machel, Samora 1933-1986


Samora Machel was the first president of Mozambique following independence in 1975. He came to prominence in the 1960s during the struggle to end Portuguese colonial rule over Mozambique and was influential as a leader of the Mozambique Liberation Front, known as Frelimo for the Portuguese name, Frente de Libertação de Moçambique. Machel was born on September 29, 1933, to a rural family in southern Mozambique, and as a child he attended a Catholic mission school. He worked briefly as an orderly, trained as a nurse from 1952 to 1954, and was then employed as a nurse in the capital city, where he continued his nursing education. He and Sorita Tchaiakomo had a common-law relationship, and they had four children together. Machel married Josina Machel in 1969 during the armed struggle, and they had one child before Josina died in 1971. He married Graça Machel in 1975, and they had two children.

European nations began the process of granting independence to their African colonies in the 1950s and 1960s, but Portugal refused to end its colonial ties. As a result, the anticolonial movements in the Portuguese colonies, including Mozambique, were forced to operate clandestinely. Machel was greatly influenced by his experiences in the colonial medical services, where he witnessed racial divisions among workers and in the treatment of patients. He began attending secret nationalist meetings, and in 1961 he met and was deeply inspired by Eduardo Mondlane (19201969), who emerged as the leader of the Mozambican liberation movement. Within a year Machel had attracted the attention of the Portuguese secret police and had to leave Mozambique in 1963 when he joined Frelimo in exile in Tanzania. Machel joined the military sector of Frelimo and trained in Algeria. The first shots of the armed struggle were fired in 1964, and by 1966 Machel was the commander of the Frelimo army. His contribution to the development of Frelimos politics included his perspective that the independence struggle was not a racial issue of black against white, but was a struggle for freedom from the colonial system, an issue that continued to be contentious for many years. He was also a strong voice for socialism within Frelimo. After Mondlanes assassination in 1969, Machel emerged as the leader of Frelimo and as president of Mozambique after the Portuguese fascist government was overthrown in 1974.

As president, Machel focused on unifying Mozambique and implementing an ambitious socialist program of reforms. Many enterprises were nationalized, education and health were dramatically expanded to serve ordinary Mozambicans, and new laws were introduced to support women, peasants, and others who had been marginalized under colonialism. But Mozambique was one of the poorest nations in the world, and it was difficult to sustain the planned changes. South Africa and Zimbabwe, both ruled by white-minority regimes in the 1970s, helped form and support an anti-Frelimo organization known as Renamo (for Resistência Nacional de Moçambique, Mozambique National Resistance). Machel found himself mired in an intractable guerrilla war as Renamo wrought extensive damage and destruction in Mozambique throughout the 1980s, ending with a peace accord in 1992.

Machel himself was a casualty of that war. In October 1986 he traveled to Zambia to participate in talks designed to bring an end to Renamos attacks. As his plane returned to Mozambique on October 19, it crashed under suspicious conditions. The plane, a Tupelov 134, apparently followed a beacon that the Soviet pilots believed would bring them to their airfield in Mozambique. Instead they crashed into a low hill inside South Africa at Mbuzini. Samora Machel and twenty-four other passengers, including other members of the government, were killed. South African officials claimed that the accident was a result of pilot error. Most Mozambicans and many others believe that the crash was orchestrated by the South African apartheid regime. Despite several investigations, including testimony as part of South Africas postapartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the exact circumstances of the crash have not been determined. More than twenty years later, President Armando Guebuza of Mozambique promised to further investigate Machels death, saying the government would not rest until the events that led to the death of his predecessor were clarified.

SEE ALSO Anticolonial Movements; Apartheid; Colonialism; Decolonization; Inequality, Racial; Liberation Movements; Pan-Africanism; Racism; Resistance; Socialism; Truth and Reconciliation Commissions


Christie, Iain. 1989. Samora Machel: A Biography. London: Panaf.

Munslow, Barry, ed. 1985. Samora Machel, An African Revolutionary: Selected Speeches and Writings. Trans. Michael Wolfers. London: Zed.

Público. 2006. Guebuza promete investigar morte de Samora Machel. September 27.

Souto, Amélia, and António Sopa. 1996. Samora Machel: Bibliografia (19701986). Maputo, Mozambique: UEM Centro de Estudos Africanos.

Kathleen Sheldon

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Machel, Samora Moïsès

Samora Moïsès Machel (səmôr´ə moizĕsh´ məshĕl), 1933–86, president of Mozambique (1975–86). Machel joined the Mozambican Liberation Front (Frelimo) in 1962, led its guerrilla forces by 1968, and in 1969 became president of the organization. In 1975, Frelimo gained power in independent Mozambique without elections, and Machel became president. Committed to creating a Marxist state, Machel was faced with extreme economic difficulties, including dependence on a hostile South Africa, unreliable Soviet aid, civil war in neighboring Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and a South African supported guerrilla resistance. Popular throughout his rule, he died in a plane crash.

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