SA and the death of Dag Hammarskjöld

Dag Hammarskjöld, the second secretary general of the United Nations, died in a plane crash shortly after midnight on September 18 1961. The aircraft was approaching Ndola, a mining town in then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Hammarskjöld had arranged a meeting with Moïse Tshombe, leader of the secessionist Katanga province, to find a solution to the conflict in the Congo. His efforts were viewed with suspicion by Western governments and the white settler-minority regimes in Southern Africa considered him to be their enemy.

The findings of a UN commission of inquiry into the circumstances of the crash were inconclusive. But its report dismissed the findings of a Rhodesian inquiry to the affect that it was “pilots’ error”.

General assembly resolution 1759 (XVII) of October 26 1962 requested the secretary general “to inform the general assembly of any new evidence which may come to his attention”. It took more than 50 years for new evidence to emerge.

New investigations

In 2011, the book Who Killed Hammarskjöld? by the Zambian-born scholar Susan Williams of the London University’s Institute for Commonwealth Studies, marked a turning point. It presented a wide range of disturbing evidence.

Under the leadership of Lord Lea of Crondall, a British trade unionist and Labour politician, a few individuals established the Hammarskjöld Inquiry Trust. It initiated a Hammarskjöld Commission, tasked with a new inquiry. This was conducted pro bono by four jurists from The Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The commission’s report revealed circumstances that called for further research and inquiry. It was submitted to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon in 2013. In consequence of initiatives by the Swedish Permanent Mission at the UN, the general assembly decided on new inquiries to be made by a panel of experts.

Following the panel’s report, in 2017, the former chief justice of Tanzania, Mohamed Chande Othman, was tasked with further investigations. His first report concluded that an aerial attack on the plane “would have been possible using resources existing in the area at the time” and “that there is likely to be much relevant material that remains undisclosed”.

He identified “the continued non-disclosure of potentially relevant new information in the intelligence, security and defence archives of UN member states” as “the biggest barrier to understanding the full truth”. He suggested that a continued investigation shifts the burden of proof to the member states to “have conducted a full review of records and archives in their custody or possession, including those that remain classified”.

Secretary general António Guterres recommended, “that relevant member states appoint an independent and high-ranking official to conduct a dedicated and internal review of their archives, in particular their intelligence, security and defence archives, to determine whether they hold relevant information”.


Othman presented his second report in September 2019. It concluded “that there were many more foreign mercenaries in and around Katanga, including pilots, than had been considered by earlier inquiries”. They had suitable planes and airfields to enable them to intercept the aircraft approaching Ndola airport. “It remains plausible that an external attack or threat was a cause of the crash”.

South Africa’s passivity

Othman based his conclusions partly on reports of the “independent high-ranking officials” that several member states had appointed pursuant to his request. But states expected to have information (the United States, the UK and South Africa) made no efforts to comply with that request. Othman recommended that key member states again be urged to appoint independent high-ranking officials to determine whether relevant information exists in their security, intelligence and defence archives and that key documents be made public.

In December a Swedish draft resolution was adopted with a record number of 128 co-sponsoring countries (including South Africa but not the UK and US), further extending Othman’s mandate. The website of the Hammarskjöld Inquiry of the Westminster Branch of the UK’s UN Association notes that “observers view this decision and a record number of co-sponsoring member states to be a clear indication to those few states which have failed to co-operate”.

The South African government did not respond to Othman’s request for assistance in 2017.

In May 2019, after yet more requests, Mxolisi Nkosi, deputy director general for global governance and constitutional agenda at the department of international relations and co-operation, was appointed. He has not submitted a report. This failure to respond is disturbing. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission referred in 1998 to the obscure South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR) having been possibly involved in unlawful operations at the time of the plane crash. It was linked to the death of Hammarskjöld through Operation Celeste. Williams and the Hammarskjöld Commission were eager to get more information about SAIMR, but to no avail. In 2015, the UN panel of experts also sought such information but without success.

In 2019, SAIMR resurfaced in a documentary, Cold Case Hammarskjöld. It presented no hard evidence with regard to what happened at Ndola. But it highlighted a suspected different role of SAIMR in activities aiming at regional destabilisation in later years.

In his latest report, Othman devotes three pages to SAIMR. He acknowledges that there is currently no hard evidence confirming Operation Celeste, but the documentary underscores the need “to verify or dispel the hypothesis relating to Operation Celeste”. This requires the co-operation of South Africa “to obtain the original documents so that they may be analysed forensically” and further classified intelligence information archived in South Africa might well exist.

Hammarskjöld played a substantial role in the decolonisation of Africa and in the search for a solution in the Congo. His concerns about the inhumanity of apartheid were well known. He was hardly liked by the white minority regimes in Southern Africa.

It is difficult to imagine that the apartheid state of the time did not follow the events in the Congo. Agencies such as SAIMR or individual mercenaries might have been directly involved in some operations. It is also difficult to understand why the government of a democratic South Africa fails to provide the support requested of it by Othman. One would expect that it would be eager to co-operate in uncovering information relating to the untimely death of a man so many people regard as being the greatest secretary general in the history of the UN.

Richard Goldstone was a member of the Hammarskjöld Commission and Henning Melber is a member of the Hammarskjöld Inquiry Trust

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