Spotting the great wail

Chris Harvie takes a worthwhile detour to the Samora Machel Monument near Komatipoort in Mpumalanga and finds that all is not what it seems.

I don’t know what we had been expecting but it wasn’t this. We had driven eighty kilometres further than we had planned, only to be assailed, when we finally stepped out of the car, by a dreadful howling. We were initially alarmed, then puzzled and finally moved. Very, very moved.

The road signs leading to the Samora Machel Monument from Malalane and Komatipoort had given no indication of distance, which is probably a good thing because, had we known how far it was, we would never have made the long detour. And that would have been a mistake.

Samora Machel’s Tupolev Tu-134 crashed into the Lebombo Mountains at Mbuzini, where South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland meet, on 19th October 1986. The plane had been a gift from the Russians and was carrying the President and his entourage home from a meeting in Zambia to Maputo. Had it come down 500 metres to the east, Machel would have died in his own country not in ours, but that was not the will of whoever was controlling the mysterious events of that day.

Heading southwards, twenty three years after the event, and following the increasingly infrequent signs, the Lebombo range appeared to be retreating further and further from us into the eastern haze but, just before the border post with Swaziland, a board directed us to the left across the plains and into the foothills. Up hill and down donga, we passed through numerous colourful villages of smiling, waving children and the endless under-construction buildings of rural South Africa, so cheering to passers-by in a financially suffocating world.

We were on the point of giving up and turning back when, deep in the distance, a skyline-puncturing shape like a wire brush rose out of the mountaintop and, as we closed in on it, a square, brick building emerged alongside it in the encircling dusk. The smile that greeted us belonged to Bonginkosi Shekwa, a departmental employee of Arts and Culture and, later, a courteous and helpful tour guide, but nothing had prepared us for the sounds that surrounded us as we opened the car doors.

First, the air thrummed with the drone of a descending aeroplane, then the wind changed and instead we heard the tragic wailing of the bereaved, suddenly rising into grief-stricken howls and finally slowing to a miserable sob.

We looked around us. It was just Bonginkosi and us. Our eyes followed his. Alongside us stood the focus of the monument, where, from the hillside, protruded several lines of pipes. Jose Forjaz, the Portuguese designer of the monument, cut splits and drilled holes in their tops so that the call of the pipes changes pitch as the wind rises and falls. It is eerie and very powerful.

The thirty-five steel tubes push some six metres skywards, representing the thirty-five dead on this scar on the montane landscape. Bonginkosi led us in amongst them and slowly and poignantly read off the names and roles of the dead. Pieces of wreckage from the fuselage lay around us where it had fallen. We had travelled far to see this extraordinary memorial but how much more remote this place must have seemed, we thought, to the two Cuban doctors and the Russian flight crew, even than for the President, several of his cabinet ministers, various officials and an ambassador, all of whom died here.

The pipes are untreated. The rust that runs down them after rain represents the blood of the dead. I felt as I do at Ncome Blood River’s equally powerful monument, moved by something far more stirring than the sadness of the events. Something primordial or pre-ordained. Machel was a clairvoyant, we were told, and had predicted his own death at a dinner party with twelve close friends, a few days before he died.

The museum alongside houses a number of friezes and models made from aircraft wreckage, an interesting history, a collection of Machel memorabilia and a frank summary of the various attempts by the four enquiries set up by the respective governments and the numerous other less formal attempts to establish the cause of the disaster. The display maintains balance and avoids prurience. Ask Bonginkosi and he will say that he doesn’t believe it was an accident, but he will go no further than that.

All we know for certain is that, on that fateful day, for some inexplicable reason, Machel’s plane made a sudden 37 degree turn and, instead of heading for Maputo, it crashed into this isolated mountainside. And the rest of the story is told in the wailing of the pipes.

The Samora Machel Monument is at Mbuzini, approx 60km south-east of Komatipoort off the R571 to the Mananga borderpost with Swaziland. Open every day until at least 4pm. Admission free. Besides the monument and museum, facilities include ample parking, a helipad and an amphitheatre to seat 200 people. The road to the monument is tarred and only mildly potholed.
There are no telephones. You can contact the monument’s curator through the Barberton Museum on 013 712 4208 for more information.