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TRC Final Report

Page Number (Original) 503

Paragraph Numbers 1 to 9

Volume 2

Chapter 6

Part Part2

Subsection 1

Volume TWO Chapter SIX

Special Investigation intothe Helderberg Crash


1 On 28 October 1987, the SAA Helderberg, a Boeing 747, crashed into the sea off the coast of Mauritius. All 159 people on board died. Almost immediately after the incident, allegations of foul play were made. A year later, in January 1989, the South African government established a commission of enquiry headed by Justice Cecil Margo to determine the cause of the crash.

2 The Margo Commission found that the crash was caused by a fire on board, but that the cause of the fire was undetermined. Many people rejected this finding, including investigative journalists who insisted that there were strong indications that the fire was caused by dangerous substances on board. Allegations were made that South African Airways (SAA) passenger flights were used to courier arms components and explosives in sanctions-busting activities by the parastatal Armscor.

3 Whilst no hard evidence was provided to back these claims, journalists continued to find circumstantial evidence to suggest that the Helderberg could have been carrying such dangerous substances, and that these might have caused the fire on board, leading to the crash.

4 Former SAA employees came forward, often anonymously, to support the allegation that it was not unusual for passenger flights to carry dubious parcels destined, they presumed, for Armscor. Moreover, members of the Flight Engineers Association indicated that the Margo Commission had overlooked important information when investigating the incident. There were allegations of cover-ups by the Margo Commission and experts suggested that the fire might have been "self-promoted" (with a self-generated oxygen source).

5 The allegations of a cover-up and uncertainty about the cause of the fire prevented families of victims from putting the matter to rest. Individual submissions were made to this Commission by Mr Peter Wills, twin brother of John Wills who was killed in the crash, Mr Rod Cramb, brother of a crew member; Mr Pieter Strijdom, whose wife died on board; and Ms Michelline Daniels, who lost her brother. The Commission also received a submission from Friends of the Victims of the Helderberg, urging the Commission to find the cause of the destruction of the plane.

6 The Commission began an investigation in late 1997 despite the fact that it was unclear whether the crash was politically motivated, a criterion for an enquiry by the Commission. Although extensive enquiries were conducted and circumstantial evidence collected, the Commission was unable to determine the cause of the fire. It is hoped, however, that the Commission's efforts will assist any future investigations into the matter.


7 An enormous amount of documentation about the incident was made available to the Commission by an investigative journalist. Documents included cargo manifests, submissions to the Margo Commission, newspaper reports, reports by independent scientists and engineers and a report by the Flight Engineers Association, amongst others.

8 Investigators analysed the documentation and identified individuals who could provide additional information to the Commission. These included families of victims and former SAA employees. Once these individuals had been interviewed, the Commission decided to approach a further group of people. Many of these represented the interests of the implicated parties, such as SAA and Armscor. It was decided that the Commission should utilise its section 29 powers to hold an in camera investigative enquiry to canvass the views of these people. This would provide them with an opportunity to answer questions in the presence of their legal representatives and would enable a panel of Commissioners to evaluate the information gained at first hand. The following people appeared as witnesses at the hearing:

  • Mr Joseph Braizblatt, SAA cargo manager at Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv, Israel;
  • Dr David Klatzow, an independent forensic scientist;
  • Mr Richard Steyl, an Armscor employee in the shipping department;
  • Dr J Steyn, a former Armscor employee and MD of Altech Electronic Systems, which had two loads of cargo on the Helderberg;
  • Mr John David Hare, a former Armscor employee who joined SAA;
  • Mr Brian Watching, a former SAA employee;
  • Mr Tinie Willemse, a lawyer who was chief director: international relations of SAA at the time of the incident;
  • Mr Gerrit Dirk van der Veer, chief executive officer of SAA at the time of the incident;
  • Mr Thinus Jacobs, manager of SAA in Taipei between 1987 and 1991;
  • Mr Mickey Mitchell, chief of operations for SAA at Jan Smuts (incorporating Springbok Radio Tower) at the time of the incident;
  • Dr Andrè Buys, Armscor general manager: planning.

9 Others who were interviewed included:

  • Mr Japie Smit, director of civil aviation;
  • Mr Leslie Stokoe, an expert on dangerous goods;
  • Mr Vernon Nadel, duty officer at the Springbok Radio centre on the night of the incident;
  • Mr Rennie van Zyl, current chief director of civil aviation;
  • Mr Jimmy Mouton, SAA flight engineer and friend of the flight engineer killed in the crash.
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