When the plane of Mozambique's revolutionary leader, Samora Machel, crashed on the night of 19 October 1986 killing him and 34 others, Apartheid South Africa immediately blamed it on "pilot error". "The Russian crew were high on Vodka," crowed Pik Botha, the then foreign minister. Now a new investigation into the crash is proving too hot for South Africa's hitherto "untouchables".
It was with deep consternation that Apartheid South Africa saw the passing of the Portuguese in Mozambique. The apartheid government dreaded the domino effect! A revolutionary government led by Samora Machel had taken over power in Mozambique on 25 June 1975, and had started nationalising Portuguese plantations and property. In addition, he was giving active support, and rear bases in Mozambique, to liberation groups fighting the white minority regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa.
In response, Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia strangled the Mozambican economy, and created the Mozambican rebel group, Renamo, which set about killing peasants and destroying schools and hospitals built by Machel's Frelimo ruling party. But the South African support for Renamo and Rhodesia could not stop Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, after which South Africa grew even more desperate as the inevitable drew closer.
Meanwhile, Apartheid South African destabilisation of the young Mozambican state increased dramatically. Renamo became more vicious. And even though the Inkomati Accord, a non-aggression pact, had been signed between Mozambique and South Africa, Machel's continued support for Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) became a festering sore.
Thus, on 14 October 1986, Machel left his capital, Maputo, to attend a meeting of the frontline states. On the agenda was a coordinated effort to end apartheid in South Africa. Before his departure, Machel had organised a meeting with journalists, Frelimo party leaders and the Mozambican military and had told them that he had information that the South African government wanted him dead. He then left clear instructions on what to do in the event of his death.
On the night of 19 October, Machel was returning from the meeting when his plane, travelling over Zimbabwe towards Maputo, crashed into a hillside of the Lebombo Mountains, inside South Africa at Mbuzini, near the junction where the borders of Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa meet. Interestingly, the crash site was also near a South African military air base in Komatipoort. In all, 34 people died, including Machel himself; but 10 others survived, one of whom was a member of the Russian crew, Vladimir Novosselov.
In an interview with the Russian newspaper, Pravda, a month after the incident, Novosselov recounted:
"I am convinced that it was not an accident, but a case of foul play... When flying over Zambia, the altimeter showed 11,400. When we crossed the Mozambican frontier, the Tupolev descended to 10,600. Yuri Novodron [the pilot] ordered contact to be made with Maputo airport, requesting authorisation to land. The airport services granted the request.
"Weather conditions were favourable for the flight. Maputo was ahead and to the left of the pilots. To the right and...