Mozambican Tupolev Tu-134 air disaster

Infobox Airliner accident
name = Mozambican Presidential Jet
Date = October 19, 1986
Type = Controlled flight into terrain
Coordinates = coord|25|54|58|S|31|57|19|E|display=inline,title
Site = Mbuzini, Lebombo Mountains, South Africa
Fatalities = 34cite web|url=|title=Accident description|publisher=Aviation Safety Network|accessdate=2007-12-18]
Injuries =
Aircraft Type = Tupolev Tu-134A
Origin = Maputo, Mozambique
Last stopover = Mbala Airport (MMQ), Zambia
Destination= Maputo International Airport (MPM), Mozambique
Operator = Mozambique Air
Tail Number = airreg|C9|CAA|disaster
Passengers = 35
Crew = 9
Survivors = 10

The Mozambican presidential Tupolev Tu-134A aircraft crashed just inside South African territory on October 19, 1986. The aircraft was carrying Mozambican president Samora Machel and 34 other passengers on a flight from Zambia to the Mozambique capital Maputo when it crashed at Mbuzini in the Lebombo Mountains. Nine passengers and one crew member survived the crash, but President Machel and twenty-four others died, including ministers and officials of the Mozambique government.

While there was widespread suspicion — both nationally and internationally — that the apartheid regime was implicated in the crash, no conclusive evidence to this effect has emerged.

outh African actions prior to crash


South Africa's State Security Council (SSC) meeting in January 1984 minuted a discussion of their Mozambican working group, which included General Jac Buchner and Major Craig Williamson, where assistance to RENAMO was discussed as a means of overthrowing the FRELIMO government of Mozambique. The TRC later included this minute as circumstantial evidence in their inconclusive report.

On March 16, 1984, the Nkomati Accord was signed at Komatipoort between South Africa and Mozambique. A clause in this agreement prohibited support of third-party resistance groups. In his commentary on the accord, South African foreign minister Pik Botha admitted in an SABC television interview that South Africa had offered limited support to RENAMO in the past.


Around October 14, 1986 Mozambique was sharply criticised by South African general Magnus Malan for allegedly allowing terrorists to enter South Africa from its territory. Mozambique later cited these remarks as evidence to implicate South Africa in the air crash.

On October 18, 1986, Pik Botha and a number of high-ranking security officials met at Skwamans, a secret security police base shared with military intelligence (MI) operatives halfway between Mbuzini and Komatipoort. The meeting broke up later that day, and Botha departed in a small aircraft. This would later be revealed by a former MI officerWho|date=March 2008 at the 2001 TRC hearings.Fact|date=February 2008

Return flight

On October 19, 1986, President Samora Machel returned from an international meeting in Zambia on Flight C9-CAA of the presidential Tupolev Tu-134A aircraft. Flight C9-CAA was approaching Maputo in the first hour after sunset and the flight crew were in relaxed discussion with one another, as revealed by the cockpit voice recorder.

A 37º turn

Around 19:10, 11 minutes prior to impact, at a height of 19,000ft the presidential aircraft made a 37º turn to the right, and headed in the wrong direction of Matsapa, Swaziland.Fact|date=February 2008 The navigation facility for this turn was never identified. None of the crew, however, identified the facility to one another or to Maputo air traffic control. Rather than continuing over the Mozambican plain to Maputo’s airport near sea level, flight C9-CAA then headed towards the Lebombo Mountains region on the South African border.

The Soviet investigation team would later offer this deviation as evidence that the crew were led astray by a possible ‘decoy navigation beacon’.Fact|date=February 2008 The Mozambican investigation team then pointed to the South African military camp near the crash site as the likely source, where they also claimed an electrical generator was present.Fact|date=February 2008 South Africa in turn identified the tents in question as a volleyball facility for soldiers.Fact|date=February 2008

Disorientation and confusion

Maputo air traffic control was saidWho|date=March 2008 to have cleared the aircraft for a descent to 3,000ft, an altitude above any mountains of the region.Fact|date=February 2008 While descending the pilot, Yuri Novodran, was determined (by the South African-appointed Margo Commission) to have taken a rigid view as to the location of the airport and declined the indirect approach suggested by his crew.

Novodran, unable to discern the runway lights at Maputo International Airport, decided they were not switched on and informed the air traffic controller: "Check your runway lights".citequote The controller misinterpreted this as "I check your lights" or "I see you",citequote and continued to clear the aircraft for landing. The Margo Commission concluded this was another alleged instance of pilot error.Fact|date=February 2008

Descent and impact

At 19:19:55, 1:45 minutes before impact, the aircraft descended to under 3,000ft. The Margo Commission concluded this was before clearance for landing was received. The aircraft continued to descend at regular intervals toward 2,000ft and lower altitudes for a direct approach to the runway without visual contact. The ground proximity warning system was activated, but was ignored by the crew, because they believed they were in relatively flat territory. The Soviet investigation team later declared this to be a reasonable decision.Fact|date=February 2008

At 19:21:40, the aircraft made controlled impact with level ground at 230 knots at about 1,969ft altitude. The point of impact is near Mbuzini in the Lebombo Mountains of South Africa. The first witnesses at the crash scene were reported to have been Mozambican soldiers. According to the next day’s SABC news report, president Machel died instantly when the aircraft crashed. 24 other persons also died and 9 survived.

Captain Marques’s Boeing Flight C9-BAA approached Maputo 14 minutes behind Flight C9-CAA and apparently encountered no confusing radio beacon.Fact|date=February 2008


outh African response

South Africa’s minister of Law and Order, Louis LaGrange, contacted South African foreign minister, Pik Botha, at 4:30 on October 20, 1986 to inform him of the crash. A Beeld newspaper report, however, claimed it was the SAP.

La Grange revealed that ‘30 to 40 persons’ may have died which may include president Samora Machel and suggested ‘very sensitive handling’ of the situation. Pik Botha relayed the information to State President P.W. Botha and together they decided that Pik Botha should visit the scene as a matter of urgency.

In accordance with the South African Air Control Act, aircraft accidents are required to be investigated by the SA Department of Transport. Thus Pik Botha consulted Hendrik Schoeman of the Department of Transport, once Machel’s death was confirmed. After Botha and Schoeman had visited the crash site, Botha cited "special circumstances", and other international protocols, as reasons to become involved.

On site investigation

The Mozambican government was informed of the situation and invited to send representatives to the border town of Komatipoort. Mozambican minister Sergio Viera joined Pik Botha at Komatipoort from where they departed by SAAF helicopter. The helicopter was only able to transport one of two members of the Civil Aviation Bureau, Mr. Pieter de Klerk, who was asked to offer guidance on site.

On arrival, Mozambican minister Sergio Viera asked for the documents that were taken from the aircraft to be handed to him. The SA commissioner of police, Johann Coetzee, had already made copies of these, and the documents were transferred to Viera. The SABC was permitted to take photos at the scene and to do "on location" reports, the only news agency allowed to do so. The South African government claimed that the Civil Aviation Bureau had no complaints about procedures followed at the site. Nonetheless, the flight data and cockpit voice recorders were removed by the South African Police, who later refused to release them for independent inspection.Fact|date=February 2008

outh African investigation

On the day after the crash, October 20, Mozambique and South Africa agreed that an international board of inquiry should be established with the participation of the International Civil Aviation Organization. The Chicago Convention determined that South Africa, as the state on whose territory the crash had occurred, would head the investigation. South Africa was obliged to work in partnership with the state of ownership (Mozambique) and the state of manufacture (Soviet Union).

Twelve days following the crash, at 18:00 on October 31, 1986, Pik Botha convened an interdepartmental government meeting, nominally to discuss progress.

After the meeting, Pik Botha made press announcements to the effect that the aircraft was fitted with antiquated instruments and that tests on two dead crew members revealed excess alcohol content in their bloodstream. Pik Botha was reported to have told Lothar Neethling of the SAP to withhold the flight data– and cockpit voice recorders from inspection by both international and Civil Aviation Bureau investigators.Fact|date=February 2008 Soviet and Mozambican investigators were thus placed at a disadvantage in their investigations.

Joint investigations

Director Rennie van Zyl of the South African Civil Aviation Bureau then served a writ on Botha and the SAP, and received the two recorders unceremoniously at 15:45 on November 11, 1986. The three international teams signed a protocol of secrecy on November 14, 1986 as Botha’s selective announcements were straining relations between the teams and governments. This allowed the teams to agree on the procedures they were to follow.

Nevertheless Botha reported to Beeld newspaper on November 24, 1986 that he had listened to Maputo air traffic control’s recordings and studied a transcription of them. These he acquired from Foreign Affair’s representative in the South African team.

The Margo Commission

The South African government established the Margo Commission, chaired by judge Cecil Margo, to investigate the accident. Pik Botha realised that negative international opinion was escalating around the matter and decided to appoint three international members of high standing to the commission. They were:
* US astronaut Frank Borman
* Geoffrey Wilkinson, former head of the British Department for Transport’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch
* Sir Edward Eveleigh, former chief justice of the British court of appeal

Margo Commission findings

The Margo commission’s findings were based mainly on the flight recorders, testimony by South African officials and the technical report submitted by the SA investigation team. The Soviet investigation team refused to take part in any public testimony and the Mozambican team also withdrew at the last moment.

The flight recorders gave excellent results, the cockpit voice recorder especially revealing much about the interactions between crew members. The investigation was however delayed for several weeks by South African police general Lothar Neethling's refusal to hand the recorders over after he had seized them at the scene of the crash.Fact|date=February 2008

The commission also levelled criticism at Pik Botha for ‘ignoring civil aviation acts’. Botha was further accused of preventing aviation officials from reaching the crash site and of illegally transferring bodies to Mozambican officials. This was claimed to result in the loss of documents essential to a successful investigation.

The commission nevertheless concluded that::
* "the aircraft was airworthy and fully serviced
* there is no evidence of sabotage or outside interference,
* the cause of the accident was that the flight crew failed to follow procedural requirements for an instrument let-down approach,
* the crew continued to descend under visual flight rules in darkness and some cloud without having contact with the minimum assigned altitude,
* the crew also ignored the Ground Warning Proximity alarm."

The Margo report was accepted by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Other investigations

oviet report

The Soviet delegation issued a minority report saying that their expertise and experience had been undermined by the South Africans. They advanced the theory of complicity of South African security forces and that the plane had been intentionally diverted by a false navigational beacon signal, using a technology provided by Israeli intelligence agents. The Soviet report focused on the 37 degrees' right turn that led the plane into the hills of Mbuzini. It rejected the finding of the Margo Commission, saying that the crew had read the ground proximity warning as false since they believed themselves to be in flat terrain as they approached landing.Fact|date=December 2007

TRC report 2001

Twelve years after the crash, when the apartheid regime had been replaced by a democratically-elected South African government, a special investigation into Machel's death was carried out in 2001 by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The TRC investigation was criticized for taking place in camera and without any aviation specialist being present. The testimony was further led by a prominent radio journalist rather than a judge.

The TRC's investigation did not find conclusive evidence to support either of the earlier reports. Nonetheless, some pieces of circumstantial evidence collected by the TRC lead to questions being raised about a number of the Margo Commission's findings:

*A former "Military Intelligence" (MI) officer revealed that Pik Botha and a number of high-ranking security officials held a meeting at Skwamans, a secret security police base shared with MI operatives halfway between Mbuzini and Komatipoort, on the day before the crash. They left late that night in a small plane and some, including Pik Botha, returned there after the crash.
*Flight C9-CAA entered a military and operational zone in South Africa (a restricted airspace, which was presumed to be under radar surveillance.) However, no warning that the plane was off course or in South African airspace was given to the aircraft.
*South Africa's State Security Council (SSC) minutes from January 1984 indicate that the Mozambican working group, including General Jac Buchner and Major Craig Williamson, discussed how to help RENAMO overthrow the FRELIMO government of Mozambique.The TRC report concluded that the questions of a false beacon and the absence of a warning from the South African authorities require "further investigation by an appropriate structure".cite web | title = Special Investigation into the death of President Samora Machel | work = Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa) Report, vol.2, chapter 6a| url =| accessmonthday = June 18 | accessyear = 2006 ]

A police video in the TRC's possession shows South African foreign minister Pik Botha telling journalists at the crash site that President Samora Machel and others killed in the crash were his and President P. W. Botha's "very good friends", and that their deaths were therefore a tragedy for South Africa.

The TRC's investigation was inconclusive, but pieces of circumstantial evidence were however collected, which led to questions concerning a number of Margo Commission findings.Fact|date=February 2008 After testimony related to a ‘radio beacon in the mountains’ the TRC report concluded that the questions of a false beacon and the absence of a warning from the South African authorities would require further investigation by an appropriate structure.

Independent Mocambiquean investigation

Mozambique contracted an independent Canadian investigator.Who|date=March 2008When He questioned the theory that a radio beacon could be responsible for directing the aircraft on a wrong trajectory.Fact|date=February 2007

Graça Machel's accusation

Machel's widow, Graça Machel, who married Nelson Mandela in 1998, believes the air crash was no accident and has dedicated her life to tracking down her late husband's killers. In May 1999, Graça Mandela said in an interview on SABC TV's "News Maker" programme that she remained convinced the apartheid regime was responsible, and challenged former foreign minister Pik Botha to come clean about Samora Machel's death. In reply, Botha told SABC TV on May 16, 1999 that although he had been one of the first people on the scene and was called on to identify Machel's body, the only facts he knew about the crash were the findings of the Margo Commission: [cite web|url=|date=May 17, 1999|title=Pik rejects Graça's theory on plane crash|publisher=Dispatch Online|accessdate=2008-03-28]

Confession by Hans Louw

In January 2003, the "Sowetan Sunday World" reported that an apartheid era killer, Hans Louw, serving a 28-year term at Baviaanspoort Prison near Pretoria, had confessed to participating in a plot to kill Machel by luring the aircraft off course, using a false radio navigational beacon cite web|url=|title=Ex-CCB man in Machel death claim|publisher=Daily DIspatch|accessdate=2008-10-06] cite web|url=|title=A Case of Assassination?|publisher=University of Cape Town|accessdate=2008-10-06] . The newspaper also revealed that another of the plotters, former Rhodesian Selous Scout, Edwin Mudingi, supported Louw's claim cite web|url=|title=Probe Samora Machel's death - Pik Botha|publisher=Sunday Independent|accessdate=2008-10-06] . However, after an investigation by the Scorpions, a South African special police unit, it was reported in June 2003 that they could find no evidence for South African complicity.Fact|date=October 2008

2006 inquiry

South African minister of Safety and Security, Charles Nqakula announced on February 2, 2006 that the Machel death crash inquiry would be reopened. He told reporters in parliament that all of South Africa's law enforcement agencies were expected to be involved in the probe, in co-operation with their Mozambican counterparts. [cite web|url=|title=Machel probe to re-open|date=February 9, 2006|accessdate=2008-03-29|publisher=East Coast Radio] [cite web|url=|title=Mozambique seeks new probe into Machel crash|author=Christopher Thompson|publisher=Mail & Guardian|date=October 20, 2006|accessdate=2008-03-29]


A [ memorial] was erected at the crash site. Designed by Mozambican architect, Jose Forjaz, at a cost to the South African government of 1.5 million Rand (US$ 300,000), the monument comprises 35 whistling wind pipes symbolising each of lives lost in the aircrash.

It was inaugurated on January 19, 1999 by Nelson Mandela and his wife Graça, and by President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique.

South African president, Thabo Mbeki declared the memorial a national monument on 19 October 2006. [cite press release|title=South Africans, Mozambicans urged to follow Machel's footsteps|url=|publisher=South African government|date=October 19, 2006]

Further reading

*cite book|title=Final Postponement, Reminiscences of a crowded life|author=Cecil Margo|date=1998|publisher=Jonathan Ball|location=Johannesburg|isbn=ISBN 186842071X|url=
*cite book|title=Soviet disinformation strategy as applied to Samora Machel death crash.|author=Yvonne Clayburn|date=1989|publisher="Institut für Afrikansche und Internationale Studien"|url=


External links

* [ Special Investigation into the death of President Samora Machel - TRC Report]
* [ A case of assassination? President Samora Machel and the plane crash at Mbuzini]
* [ Mystery still surrounds Machel death]
* [ Photos of the aircraft]

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