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Comrade President: A review

Saturday 3 May 2014

Ama Biney

2014-05-01, Issue 676

The new film on the Mozambican leader, Samora Machel, shows a dynamic figure who rose from nurse, guerrilla fighter, military commander to president of a nation that was assailed by many enemies. He is to be remembered for his achievements and desire for peace, justice, democracy and equality for all Mozambicans The film “Comrade President” on the life and times of Mozambican leader, Samora Machel, was shown to a very well attended audience in the British Film Institute (BFI) in central London on 26 April 2014. It opened with the profoundly poignant words from Graca Machel, the late widow of Samora:

‘My children, some friends and I think that it is time to serenely bestow Samora to those who did not know him,

To those who remember a little of him; to those who lively remember him, whether because they worshipped him or because they hated him.’

The 90 minutes film, directed by the Zimbabwean film director, Mosco Kwamendo and the Portuguese producer Marilia Angove, captures the influences on Samora Machel, the objectives of the liberation movement, FRELIMO, founded in June 1962 to unite and free the country from the brutalities of Portuguese colonialism; the problems of post-independent Mozambique in the regional political turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s until the untimely and suspicious death of Samora Machel on 19 October 1986. There are many strengths of the film such as the superb and discerning use of historical footage throughout the film; interviews with Graca Machel, Irene Buke (a former partner of Machel), Josephat Machel (Samora’s brother), Marcelino dos Santos (former Vice President to Samora), Fernando Ganhao, Jao Ferreira and leader of RENAMO, Afonso Dhlakama. The inclusion of interviews with two of Samora’s six children Ornelia and Samito as well comments made by Graca Machel and Marcelino dos Santo, give a very human dimension to Samora. Too often political figures are often presented in a one dimensional manner that lacks appreciation of their human qualities and values. His children disclosed that their father would show them affection and instilled in them that they should never believe that they were better than other children because they were the children of the president. Throughout the film the principled ethics of Machel prevails. Graca Machel commented that there was a line one did not cross with Machel and if one did, there was a price to pay. That Machel publically denounced his Minister of Defence, Head of Intelligence and Head of Home Affairs for misconduct is evidence of his high ethical standards. When his daughter became impregnated at an early age he insisted that she marry within two weeks. Even his arch ideological adversary, Afonso Dhklama, observes Samora was not materialistic and left no assets for his family when he died; that one of the positives (and there were many) that Samora implemented were educational policies to address the high levels of illiteracy in the country that dramatically declined over the years.


In the film we see a man who possessed charisma in the calibre of statesmen such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, who could speak for hours to ordinary people as Samora enjoyed human contact. We see him in the film rise from nurse, to guerrilla fighter, guerrilla commander - particularly after the tragic death of military commander Felipe Magai in 1966, to President in May 1970 after the equally tragic assassination of Frelimo’s first President, Dr Eduardo Mondlane, from a parcel bomb in Southern Tanzania on 3 February 1969. We also see a man who had a clarity of ideological vision in that the struggle for national liberation was not about driving the Portuguese into the sea and replacing them with blacks, for Samora was known to repeat: “Frelimo has white and black comrades and white and black enemies.” He was insistent that the crusade of Frelimo was never an anti-white one and therefore there were white combatants among Frelimo’s rank and file such as Fernando Ganhao and others. As the film illustrates through the recounting of Marcelino dos Santos, the composition of the first Frelimo cabinet on gaining independence, was a multi-racial one of Asians, Africans, mestizos (people of mixed race) and Portuguese. Samora referred to this composition as Frelimo’s “sophisticated weapon” for which the racist South African and Rhodesian government loathed, as it undermined the ideology of apartheid practised in these two neighbouring countries.

Again the film perceptively pointed out that Portuguese political prisoners and deserters were treated with clemency and respect by the Frelimo fighters. Not only did this give Frelimo the moral high ground in the international sphere, it encouraged further the idea of desertion and mutiny on the part of Portuguese soldiers. But equally important it also illustrated to ordinary Mozambicans that the struggle was not about killing whites. Very rarely recognised and appreciated is a brilliant point made in the film that the Portuguese soldiers were influenced by their interaction with Frelimo militants over the eleven years of guerrilla struggle and that seeds of mutiny were implanted in the minds of Portuguese soldiers who returned to Lisbon and helped to overthrow the fascist government. Frelimo’s military victory was that it had created a war weary Portuguese army who after 7 months of pouring 35,000 Portuguese troops into Mozambique in the “Gordian Knot” operation of 1970 the Portuguese soldiers realised they were up against a formidable enemy and the attack crumbled. The war weariness of the Portuguese army co-existed with a Portuguese population who were also tired of war. Among the Portuguese soldiers who met Samora was Ramalho Eanes who was among the leaders of the “Carnation Revolution” of Portugal that brought about a return to democratic government without bloodshed. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Portuguese revolution in which a coup d’etat alongside a popular mass demonstration of Portuguese citizens took to the streets to support the return of democracy. The “Carnation Revolution” of 25 April 1974 is now a national holiday in Portugal known as “Freedom Day.” It is named after the numerous carnations that civilians placed in the button holes and rifles of soldiers in the streets of Lisbon. It was historically fitting and a coincidence that the BFI held the screening of the film a day after the Lisbon commemoration of 40 years since the “Carnation Revolution.”


During the question and answer session that followed the screening a valid point (among many) was made that there was an “over generous” exposure in the film to commentary by Afonso Dhlakama, the RENAMO leader who for sixteen years carried out a heinous destabilisation war, backed firstly by Rhodesia and then South Africa, as well as Malawi. Use of political commentary from Mozambican political scientists and historians of the era would have profoundly enriched this film and provided an important counterbalance to the rather Manichean depiction of the conflict as a civil war between Frelimo and RENAMO. Such academics could have drawn out some of the nuances of the period. Undoubtedly, it was certainly a civil war but the reality was far more complex as the destabilisation seriously undermined the socio-economic policies of the new socialist orientated government during an era of acute Cold War tensions and polarities.

The film tries to maintain an even-hand by depicting and stating the killings of both Frelimo and RENAMO. It gives film footage of the maiming of individuals such as the ANC lawyer, Albie Sachs in June 1983 in which he tragically lost an arm. Such terrorist incidents were committed alongside the killings of masses of Mozambicans. An omission in the film was the killing of the ANC communist scholar-activist and journalist, Ruth First, a year earlier, in August 1982 by a letter bomb in Maputo. Fernando Ganhao acknowledged many of Frelimo’s errors including the enforced villagisation, re-education camps and poor implementation of policies. Therefore, there is little romanticisation of Frelimo nor of Samora, as it is stated in the film that he turned to drink and became politically isolated.

The film made a good attempt to provide a context for Machel’s signing of the Nkomati Accord on 16 March 1984 in terms of showing how Machel fully supported the liberation struggle in neighbouring Rhodesia by the Zimbabwe National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and had also allowed ANC guerrillas to use Mozambique as a transit route to attack apartheid targets in South Africa. However, the full complexity of the socio-economic and political factors that pushed Machel to sign an Accord with the racist apartheid devil were not quite fully captured. The depth of the crisis that forced Frelimo’s hand were not only war or destabilisation that was backed to the hilt by South Africa but Mozambique had been brought to its knees between 1981-1984 by drought (the worst in memory) that led to famine, particularly in the provinces of Gaza and Inhambane in 1982 and 1983 and the failure of international donors to give aid when Mozambique requested such aid in January 1983. Whilst the film depicted Machel’s tour to the Western world in October 1983, it did not mention that it was hoped an outcome of the tour would be pledges of foreign investment. It did not happen. Therefore, in January 1984 as a result of war and famine the Frelimo government had to declare bankruptcy. If things could not get any worse, they did. By the end of 1984 there were floods adding to the grievous economic crisis. I recall in late 1984 being an African Studies undergraduate student in Britain and seeing the graphic images of floods in parts of Mozambique with the news story of a Mozambican woman giving birth to a child in a tree and below the mighty tree depths of dangerous water.

In short, drought, famine, and floods from 1981-1984 were an integral part of the reason why Mozambique was forced to reluctantly embrace the South African hyena. This was not depicted in the film. However, it is necessary to acknowledge that a film of this nature is a herculean task because of the complexity of the era that cannot be disentangled from the politics of the Cold War in addition to South Africa’s and Rhodesia’s machinations at the time, as well as the constraints of budgets and running time of a film. As Marilia Angove the producer pointed out with wit, her task was the “official beggar.” Moreover, with what she describe as a “nano” budget, the team has produced a very important film that needs a much wider viewing, despite these misgivings.

The film ends with the death of Machel showing footage of the plane crash in what is today the Mpumalanga province of South Africa, with South African officials clearing debris and dead bodies as well as the official funeral for Machel. In total 32 people died in the crash. An interview with one of the 10 survivors of the crash informs us that when the plane crashed Machel was talking to journalists inside the plane. Engaging with people was something Samora thoroughly enjoyed.

An important point is made at the end of the film that:

“Twenty five years after his death, there is still much controversy about the causes of the plane crash. The apartheid South African opinion of human error is disputed by the Mozambican government. Speculation is still rife that apartheid South Africa brought the plane down.”

With 20 years of an ANC government in power in a free and democratic South Africa, perhaps it is time as part of an indebtedness to the people of Mozambique that the truth be unearthed to the people of Mozambique as to what happened to their beloved leader in a new official enquiry that involves the Mozambican government in partnership with the South African government. It is time for a bold ANC government who were prepared to hold an internal Truth and Reconciliation Commission to reconcile themselves and the people of Mozambique as to what happened on the night of 19 October 1986 that led to the death of Samora Machel and 31 ministers, security officials and journalists. Samora was killed for allowing the territory of Mozambique to be used by the ANC as a transit route; in short for aiding the liberation of his fellow black South Africans.


The BFI’s excellent “African Odysseys” programme is now in its seventh year. It is focused on showing films about Africa and Africans born in the Diaspora. There is a need for more African films to be made by African people and shown on the continent itself as well as in the Diaspora not only to entertain African people but more importantly, educate and inspire them to change their realities.

This film has succeeded in rescuing Samora Machel from historical obscurity for he needs to be much widely and popularly known as Kwame Nkrumah, Thomas Sankara and Nelson Mandela. Samora Machel is firmly among the pantheon of Pan-Africanist leaders who not only envisioned freedom for his people but for the rest of Africa and Africans. He paid a huge personal price as did many Mozambicans who lost their lives through destabilisation, stunted mental and physical growth through years of war and famine exacerbated by the apartheid regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa who supplied Renamo to inflict terror with the destruction of bridges, roads, schools and clinics on its own people. As Graca Machel comments in the film, without Mozambique, Zimbabwe would not have got independence when it did.

The after screening discussion with the director and producer and the audience was very interesting as two important points were made by two audience members. The first was a point made that Mozambique and Samora have to be understood in the context of the Cold War and how imperialism sought to annihilate the socialist experiment of Frelimo perceived as a threat to capitalist; that the Frelimo leadership – despite achievements and mistakes, has made a 360 degree turn on the principles of economic justice and equity for its people with present day Frelimo leaders worshipping on the altar of greed and personal enrichment. The second point from another audience member compared the lack of ethics of current African leaders such as the regime of ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe with that of Frelimo’s government.

Mosco Kamwendo shared that he was inspired to make the film as a result of growing up in his native Zimbabwe, seeing and hearing much about Machel. As a young boy at the age of 10 when Zimbabwe won its independence he recalled seeing the great Machel and how Machel did not sit with the invited dignitaries during the independence celebrations but among ordinary Zimbabweans in the stadium. However, it was the death of Machel and the controversial and suspicious circumstances surrounding the air plane crash that ignited a renewed interest. Kamwendo was to discern that the personal and political life of Machel were equally, if not more intriguing to him than his death and needed therefore to be captured on screen.

Samora Machel was a revolutionary figure who connected with ordinary people. He felt the job of president was too big for him, yet valiantly took up the task in the circumstances of the time. He envisioned a new and just socio-economic society for his people and was thwarted in doing so by many internal and external enemies of the time.



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See online: Comrade President: A review