The nose of Pan Am Flight 103 lies in a field outside the village of Lockerbie, Scotland. AP African News Agency (ANA) Archives
OPINION - What do Mats Wilander, the tennis player, and former National Party minister Pik Botha have in common?

Botha died recently and his colourful life has been mostly eulogised in the media. Botha and Wilander both missed Pan Am Flight 103, which crashed over Lockerbie in Scotland on December 21, 1988, killing 270 people. At the time Wilander was the No1 tennis player in the world and that year, 1988, had seen him achieve a great feat when he won three Grand Slams - the Australian, French and US Open tennis championships. Wilander had made a reservation but did not take a seat on the flight.

“Those whom the gods love, die young” is an adage from Greek mythology but for the handsome, curly-haired Swede the gods were clearly making an exception when he missed Pan Am Flight 103. Since that fateful day, Wilander has had a wonderful career and made a lot of money. He now spends much of his time living on an 33-hectare estate in Hailey, Idaho, US, which is part of the Sun Valley ski resort. He married Sonya (née Mulholland), a South African model from Summerveld, Durban.

On January 11, 1989 Botha travelled to Stockholm in Sweden with other foreign dignitaries - including UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar - for the funeral of the UN’s Commissioner for South-West Africa, Bernt Carlsson. Botha was interviewed by Sue MacGregor on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, and alleged that he and a 22-strong South African delegation, who were booked to fly from London to New York on December 21, 1988, had been targeted by the ANC. However, having been alerted to these ANC plans to kill him, Botha said he managed to outsmart them by taking the earlier Pan Am Flight 101 from Heathrow to JFK Airport, New York.

Despite having the knowledge, the question remains why he did not tell the airline security and alert the other passengers that their deaths were going to follow in a few minutes. Is there any other conclusion but that Botha was happy for them to go to their deaths?


The notion that Botha was warned is bolstered by statements made by Oswald Le Winter, who worked for the CIA from 1968 to 1985, and Tiny Rowland in the 1994 film The Maltese Double Cross. This film was made by Allan Francovich, who later died under suspicious circumstances.

In the film Le Winter quotes Rowland as disclosing that Botha had told him he and 22 South African delegates were going to New York for the Namibian Independence Ratification Ceremony and were all booked on the Pan Am Flight 103. They were given a warning from a source which could not be ignored and changed flights. The source revealed by Le Winter is the SA Bureau for State Security (BOSS), which he claims had close contacts with Israeli intelligence and the CIA.

The grave misgivings of the public about this tragedy persuaded a relative of a victim to write to retired South African MP Colin Eglin of the Democratic Party, asking him to make enquiries on the South African side. On June 5, 1996, Eglin asked Justice Minister Dullah Omar in Parliament if Pik Botha and his entourage “had any plans to travel on this flight (Pan Am Flight 103) or had reservations for this flight; if so, why were the plans changed?” In reply on June 12, 1996, Omar stated he had been informed by Botha that shortly before finalising their booking arrangements for travel from Heathrow to New York, they learnt of an earlier flight from London to New York, namely, Pan Am Flight 101. They were booked and travelled on this flight to New York.

Eglin wrote back on July 18, 1996, and added: “Since then I have done some more informal prodding. This has led me to the person who made the reservations on behalf of the South African foreign minister Pik Botha and his entourage. This person assures me that he and no one else was responsible for the reservations, and the reservation made in South Africa for the South African group was originally made on PA 101, departing London at 11:00 on 21 December 1988. It was never made on PA 103 and consequently was never changed. He made the reservation on PA 101 because it was the most convenient flight connecting with South African Airways Flight SA 234 arriving at Heathrow at 07:20 on 21 December 1988.”

Eglin gave the victim’s family the assurance that he had “every reason to trust the person referred to” as he had been given a copy of “rough working notes and extracts from his personal diary of those days”. In his letter Eglin wrote: “In the circumstances, I have to accept that an assertion that the reservations of the South African group were either made or changed as a result of warnings that might have been received is not correct.”

Could the “rough working notes” and the “personal diary of those days” have been fabricated to save Pik Botha’s skin from a most embarrassing and possibly criminal act? Two years before Eglin asked the questions in Parliament, Botha was contacted by the press and his replies were reported on a Reuters Textline of November 12, 1994, under the heading “South African Minister denies knowing of Lockerbie Bomb”.

The article said: “Former foreign minister Pik Botha denied on Saturday he had been aware in advance of a bomb on board Pan Am Flight 103 which exploded over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people. The minister confirmed through his spokesman that he and his party had been booked on the ill-fated airliner but switched flights after arriving early in London from Johannesburg.”

There is further confirmation of the fabrication from other sources. On November 12, 1994, Botha’s spokesperson, Gerrit Pretorius, told Reuters that Botha and 22 South African negotiators, including Defence Minister Magnus Malan and Foreign Affairs director Neil van Heerden, had been booked on Pan Am Flight 103. He said “the flight from Johannesburg arrived early in London and the embassy got us on to an earlier flight. Had we been on Pan Am Flight 103 the impact on South Africa and the region would have been massive. It happened on the eve of the signing of the tripartite agreements,” said Pretorius, referring to pacts signed at the UN headquarters on December 22, 1988, which ended South African and Cuban involvement in Angola, and which led to Namibian independence.

Another statement by Pretorius was in appallingly bad taste: “The minister is flattered by the allegation of near-omniscience.” Pretorius goes on to explain again how the change had come about. “But we got to London an hour early and the embassy got us on an earlier flight. When we got to JFK (airport) a contemporary of mine said, ‘Thank God you weren’t on 103. It crashed over Lockerbie’.”

There is further confirmation of the change of flight from another spokesperson for Pik Botha. “Had he known of the bomb, no force on Earth would have stopped him from seeing to it that Flight 103 with its deadly cargo would not have left the airport,” his spokesperson Roland Darroll told Reuters after consulting the minister.

Theresa Papenfus has written a hagiography of Botha and his times, which gives a further version of the events of that fateful night. Papenfus says: “A former member of staff related that there had been a hitch in the travel arrangements. The SAA flight took off from Johannesburg for London on 20 December 1988 I was concerned with the travel arrangements to New York. Because Pik preferred Frankfurt Airport to Heathrow, the party was booked on (Pan Am) Flight 103 from Frankfurt via London to New York.”

This conflicts diametrically with the statement that there never was a booking on Flight 103. Papenfus goes on to say: “It was the third scheduled daily transatlantic flight from London to John F Kennedy Airport in New York. But this schedule would have interfered with affairs of the heart. The official had a fiancée in London and he simply had to see her. He arranged for the delegation to take an earlier flight, from Johannesburg to London and then from London to New York.”

The official who changed the bookings was clearly with Botha. Papenfus says: “Once they arrived at New York the official had to attend to the usual administrative duties of ministerial staff. While the ministers were being whisked away from the airport in cars their baggage had to be collected and their passports stamped. Through the glass panels he could see people showing signs of hysteria. Some were crying, others screaming and a few were lying on the ground. ‘Americans!’ he muttered to himself. Then he was told by a member of the secret service that the Boeing on Pan Am Flight 103 had crashed. This was the flight on which the South African delegation had originally been booked.”

Papenfus admits a further intriguing detail: “In response to enquiries the Department of Foreign Affairs initially officially denied that seats had ever been booked for the ministerial party on Pan Am Flight 103. They said that the bookings had been on Flight 101 right from the beginning.” Papenfus concludes: “The tragedy claimed the life of the UN’s Commissioner for South West Africa, Mr Bernt Carlsson of Sweden. He was supposed to have been present at the signing of the agreements.”

The question remains whether he was not the real target of those who put the bomb on Pan Am 103.

  • Nicholson is a retired judge of the High Court in KwaZulu-Natal.
The Independent on Saturday