New evidence of Helderberg cargo cover-up
A former South African Airways cabin crew member has spoken out for the first time about his role in concealing what cargo the Helderberg was carrying when the aircraft crashed on November 28 1987, killing 159 people.
Wimpie Bothma, 57, now a businessman living in Brakpan, said that on the day of the crash - South Africa's worst air disaster - he held a telex in his hand which ordered the SAA manager in Taipei to "Seize all cargo documents related to [flight] SA295. No one to see it."
The telex was sent by Gert van der Veer, who was CEO of the airline at the time. Van der Veer said this week that he could not recall sending such a telex, but if it was sent, it would have been standard procedure.
The cause of the mid-air fire that preceded the crash remains disputed, but Bothma's statements, contained in an affidavit signed this week, add to long-held suspicions that the aircraft had been carrying a dangerous, sanctions-busting consignment of rocket fuel.
Last month, an Australian dying of cancer, Allan Dexter, said under oath that the cargo contained rocket fuel. He had heard this from the head of SAA in Taipei, a Mr Viljoen. At the time, Dexter worked as a public relations manager for SAA.
Bothma said this week he had believed it was patriotic to keep quiet. However, he had changed his mind after Peter Otzen - the son of one of the Helderberg victims - issued a call in the Sunday Times two weeks ago for anyone with information to come forward.
Bothma said he had been on the Helderberg's outgoing flight to Taiwan, arriving on November 27. "When we landed in Taipei, a South African Defence Force colonel in uniform, who I was told was the South African military attaché to Taiwan, came on board and went straight into the cockpit," he said.
Bothma had a shower at the hotel in Taipei where the crew stayed and went out to visit the city. "When I came back, I bumped into the crew of what was to be the Helderberg's last flight. I knew all of them."
He said the next morning co-pilot John Wessels called him at the hotel and told him the Helderberg was two hours overdue at Mauritius. Wessels said the aircraft had also not diverted to the island of Diego Garcia.
Bothma said he and Wessels went to the SAA offices in Taipei, where they were met by the SAA office manager, Tinus Jacobs, and the local manager of the South African Tourism Board, Pierre Roos. "Satour's offices were across the corridor from SAA," he said. "They had a telex machine; SAA did not."
Bothma said relatives of Taiwanese passengers on the Helderberg were arriving and demanding answers as rumours spread of the crash.
"Mr Van der Veer and another top SAA official, Mr Tienie Willemse, called in a frantic state every few minutes saying we could only say 'no comment', so that is what we did," he said.
"At about noon, Mr Van der Veer called to say he would be sending a telex within a few minutes and I had to personally go across to the Satour offices, take it and personally hand it to Mr Jacobs without anyone else seeing it.
"The telex arrived. I read it as I took it off the Satour machine. It read: 'Seize all cargo documents related to SA295. No one to see it.' I took it to Mr Jacobs and never saw it again."
Bothma said he flew back to South Africa on December 1.
"Upon landing in Johannesburg, a strange thing happened. For the only time in my career of 13 years, we were not taken through customs but went straight to the SAA offices. We were told that was done to avoid the media."
Bothma said although he did not know what had been on board the Helderberg, he had on at least three different occasions seen missiles loaded onto SAA passenger flights in Tel Aviv. Tarpaulins had been placed over the munitions, but they had not concealed them completely.
He said this proved that official denials that passenger flights were used to sidestep arms sanctions were untrue.
Van der Veer said on Friday that the day of the crash had been too hectic for him to be able to remember exact details 27 years later, but he "certainly did not" recall the conversations and telex Bothma described.
"We did our best to ascertain the truth," he said. "To seize the cargo documents and hand them to civil aviation authorities would have been the correct procedure, although I do not recall it."