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Helderberg disaster: South Africa still needs answers

Underwater photos of the doomed Helderberg SAA Flight 295, plane crash. Picture: BUSINESSINSIDER

Underwater photos of the doomed Helderberg SAA Flight 295, plane crash. Picture: BUSINESSINSIDER

Published Nov 30, 2021


Koert Meyer

CAPE TOWN - It is that time of the year again. Thirty four years ago, on the night of Friday 27/ Saturday 28 November 1987, South Africa's worst air crash happened.

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South African Airways’ (SAA) Boeing aircraft at the time were given the names of our mountains. The Helderberg Range is close to Somerset West, so how can we forget?

Looking back, soon after the National Party notoriously came to power in 1948, quite a number of air disasters happened in South and southern Africa, with the loss of many lives.

In 1954 a Comet plunged into the Mediterranean Sea en route from London to Jan Smuts Airport, Johannesburg, with the loss of fourteen passengers and seven crew.

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On 13 March 1967 a Viscount, named the Rietbok after one of our antelopes, crashed into the sea between Port Elizabeth (today Gqeberha) and East London. Twenty-five passengers and crew lost their lives.

These two airports carried the names of the most hated apartheid Prime Minister, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, and one of his transport ministers, Ben Schoeman respectively.

A year later, on 20 April 1968, the worst air crash at the time happened when a Boeing named the Pretoria, crashed soon after take-off from the Windhoek airport, named JG Strijdom after Verwoerd's predecessor. This saw the loss of 123 passengers and crew, while five survived. That country, occupied and administered by South Africa at the time, was then known as South West Africa and is today Namibia.

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The crash of the Helderberg, en route from Taipei to Johannesburg, was the worst as far as the loss of lives is concerned.

All 159 aboard, including 140 passengers of various nationalities and 19 South African crew, perished when a mysterious fire started in the cargo area, spread rapidly and could not be contained. The aircraft broke up mid-air, eventually plunging into the Indian Ocean near Mauritius. Few bodies were retrieved.

There were two other highly sensational air crashes, one close to and the other within our country. The first happened on 18 September 1961 when an aircraft carrying the United Nations' Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold and other high-ranking officials, crashed near Ndola in Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia).

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The second was the crash close to Komatipoort in Mpumalanga on 19 October 1986 in which Mozambican President Samora Machel and 34 others died.

It is significant that all these crashes happened in the apartheid era, 1948 to 1994.

Although several investigations and even commissions of inquiry, some led by the late Judge Cecil Margo, and even the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were conducted at huge cost to the taxpayer, none yielded conclusive, credible evidence of their causes.

Very few experts, and even apartheid's friends, would in any case have believed whatever explanations the regime could supply to exonerate itself.

This opened the door to conspiracy theories, especially around the Helderberg disaster, at the height of an arms embargo against South Africa, which could have, and did precipitate the demise of the ungodly regime.

Unfortunately, those who knew and those who are still alive today who know what could have been the truth about them all, the latest being the late former President De Klerk, chose the callous route and would rather go to their graves without spilling the beans, not realising that the truth can never be suppressed.

At the time the securocrats in his cabinet, we now learn, had preferred a fight to the bitter end against liberating forces, with huge loss of life. They even attempted to acquire components and fuel for a nuclear bomb or missiles, from the world's three other pariah states, than going the route De Klerk eventually heroically chose which brought about peace and democracy, but infamy to him and our icon, Madiba, our country now unfortunately threatened by evil forces hell-bent on conspiring, and ganging up to unseat our duly elected people's government, taking us ever closer to the precipice.

What about all the innocent, traumatised victims of these atrocities?

Will they have to suffer all their lives yearning for the truth and eventual elusive closure as to how, and for what reason, their loved ones had to die?

One of the grandchildren of the Helderberg victims, who was too small at the time, recently published a book pleading for answers.

What about another grandchild who learnt from his folks how his pappa died way back in a 1926 train crash near Salt River, also yearning for answers?

As we commemorate, let us focus on all the survivors, both victims and perpetrators, of all these notorious events in our history, when evil folks believed they would attain their devilish goals at whatever cost by killing or causing the deaths of unsuspecting people extra-judicially.

No other African country suffered as many air disasters with such a high price in human lives. It is however heart warming that since 1987 we have been spared another major one.

Since the truth always has strange ways of surfacing from wherever it is hidden, grandchildren from both sides will continuously probe, asking questions as bits and pieces of the truth emerge, however long it might take, maybe not even in our time. The truth sets free indeed. These events touched all of us as compatriots of our beautiful country. The least we can do is to keep the flames of hope alive. We will never forget.

Meyer is an anti-death penalty and anti-apartheid activist, former history educator and scholar.

Cape Times

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