Friday, 17 February 2012

The Final Skeleton Of Apartheid

My inaugural trip to Mauritius came to an end 24 years ago last week.  Although I hadn’t realised it at the time, it was to be a visit which was to have a life changing impact upon my life.  That historic Air France flight took an eternity via what seemed like a tour of the world at the time.  If memory serves, our flight stopped in Reunion, Nairobi, Lyon and Paris, before finally landing in England an incredible 21 hours later.  It’s all the more notable considering the events of two months earlier which had threatened to abort that trip before I had even made it to Heathrow.

Just 10 days before our departure a South African Airlines (SAA) flight from Taipei to Johannesburg had crashed off my island of Mauritius in what at the time had been a suspected terrorist attack.  All 159 on board perished in the disaster.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that initially there were very severe reservations being expressed by my father as to whether the trip to paradise should even go ahead at this time.  There were genuine fears that the outlawed ANC had commenced a new chapter of action against the apartheid regime in South Africa and that flights operating in the area were at risk.

The trip went ahead, but I was to find myself again linked to this tragedy when my very first visit to what is now my favourite place in the world Ile Plate, a small uninhabited island 11 kilometres north of Mauritius, coincided with my sister locating and collecting a very unique piece of history.  She recovered the aircraft lamp from the wing of that fateful flight, washed up on the shore of the beach.  We tried desperately to get this precious artefact back to the UK but sadly it was damaged beyond repair during transit. 

Eighteen years later when I started visiting Mauritius regularly, my dad told me a story from that trip to Mauritius, regarding our relatives from Grand Gaube who were fishermen by trade.  Their daily “commute” to work would regularly involve them swimming around the island Coin Di Mire for fishing and diving.  As fishermen they knew the oceans like most of us know our local streets, and they told my dad the story about their “red eyes”, coincidentally around the time of our trip all those years before.  The fishermen were complaining that when they returned to Grand Gaube their eyes had been irritated by something beyond the coral reef in the ocean, something which hadn’t occurred before and had never occurred since. There was no visible change in the appearance or texture of the water, but they knew that something was not right. There was no explanation provided for the incidents, only that it affected a lot of people during this period. There was no long lasting damage as far as anyone knows, but it did set my mind ticking.  I have spent the last six years trying desperately to get to the bottom of this. 

Officially the demise of the Helderberg was due to an in flight fire and not a terrorist act as had been initially suggested during the final days of November 1987.  But the initial cause of the fire has largely been unexplained.  A transcript of the conversation between the captain and Mauritian air traffic control can be found here, but offered no clues as to what triggered the fire. 

The South African forensic scientist Doctor David Klatzow has been looking into what sparked the fire on board for several years now, and offers an intriguing number of theories regarding the events of Helderberg flight 295.  He argues that the cargo on board that flight contained prohibited items, materials which were illegal under the arms embargo against South Africa which had been enforced against the apartheid regime during this period.  He has also claimed that the tapes from the pilot’s conversations were passed to Gert Van Der Veer, who was SAA CEO at the time. Van Der Veer had always claimed he had no knowledge of the tapes and testified under oath to this effect at both the Margo Commission and Truth & Reconciliation hearings. 

Klatzow has always maintained that the tapes would have revealed the hidden truth behind the contents of the cargo.  The captain on that flight was also a reservist for the South African Air Force which adds yet another layer to this very unsual tragedy.

This all ties in nicely with the stories from my father’s relatives and the mystery behind the strange eye irritation that had occurred around the time.  If the Helderberg had been carrying materials of a military nature, then given the proximity of the crash to Mauritius it is certainly plausible that the contents may have washed up much closer to Mauritius than anybody had previously suspected. 

I’d be fascinated to see what may emerge if Klatzow did compare what he has uncovered with the stories from the fishermen in Mauritius, it may well provide yet another piece of this bizarre puzzle which I describe as the final skeleton of the apartheid era.  The Truth & Reconciliation hearings presided over a comprehensive review of the atrocities committed by the South African apartheid administration spanning over four decades.  Yet this particular chapter of South African history has remained unsolved because the critical question of the source of the fire has never been established.   If Doctor Klatzow wishes to get in touch, I will be happy to facilitate a meeting with my father’s relatives who can corroborate their experiences with him.  It would be remarkable if something seemingly so trivial can be linked back to the mystery of SAA Helderberg Flight 295.

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