Was she the reason for the Rietbok crash?

There may be something to the conspiracy theories surrounding the crash of the Rietbok 30 years ago, writes Mike Loewe

South Africa’s oldest aviation mystery, the “disappearance” of South African Airways’s Rietbok, took a new turn this week when a prominent left-wing historian revealed that one of the victims on board, Audrey Rosenthal, was working for the liberation movement.

Earlier this year Minister of Transport Mac Maharaj came under pressure from families of the 25 victims to reopen the aviation inquiry into the Viscount Vickers plane, which vanished as it approached East London to land on the night of March 13 1967.

Neither the Rietbok nor its passengers were ever seen again. What was seen was an extraordinary security clampdown on the crash site off Kayser’s Beach, near East London.

Authorities have always maintained that neither the wreck, nor any bodies, were found. But new evidence - to be evaluated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - has it that the wreck was indeed found by navy divers, but the discovery was covered up.

Among others, former navy diver Malcolm Viviers earlier this year claimed that soon after the disaster, he had seen parts of the plane and passengers strapped in their seats on a video screen aboard the navy minesweeper SAS Johannesburg, anchored above the wreck.

Victims’ relatives - like soft- spoken City Press sub-editor Johan Bruwer - have again started dropping faxed appeals on Maharaj’s desk.

Bruwer’s story is one of the most compelling in offering a motive for the destruction of the Rietbok. His father, JP Bruwer, was a very special passenger. He was the vice-rector of the University of Port Elizabeth and the acting chair of the then all- powerful Broederbond.

Bruwer’s children are adamant that at the time he boarded the Rietbok he was a deeply disillusioned man, had started publicly to denounce apartheid as racial discrimination and told them that he would be killed.

He had also started advocating a nascent form of dtente with newly independent African states.

The revelations have fuelled speculation that the Rietbok was one of the apartheid state’s first “dirty tricks” operations.

But this week, the Mail & Guardian learned that another very special person was on board.

Audrey Rosenthal was described as the “American woman with the briefcase” by former security police officer Donald Card. Card, who later became mayor of East London on a liberal ticket, said his police superiors had been obsessed with Rosenthal.

The M&G was told this week that she was also on a mission for the liberation movements - a fact which will add some weight to the paper on Maharaj’s desk.

This week, Martin Legassick, professor of history at the University of the Western Cape, said he had recruited Rosenthal - whom he described as an “adventurous and lively” postgraduate student - to work for the Defence and Aid Fund, a group run by Canon Collins, dean of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The group was, at that stage, trying to provide clandestine financial support for members of African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress families back in South Africa who were struggling as a result of their loved ones being in exile, jail or detention. The fund was supported by both liberation movements.

Legassick said he and Rosenthal had met in London during the heady days of 1966, when the Sixties cultural and political revolution was getting into swing. He had fled South Africa earlier following the clampdown on resistance by the apartheid government and the banning of the ANC and PAC.

While London was a rocking city, the struggle in South Africa was at its lowest ebb. Legassick was by then a supporter of the ANC and worked closely with its exiled political leadership, which had informally set up First World headquarters in the city and was very active.

He said of that South African political period: “The security branch had their hands free to look at everything.”

For the 27-year-old left-wing South African intellectual, with his intense eyes magnified by thick black spectacles which would not be out of place in retro-rave subculture today, Rosenthal must have represented a breath of fresh air.

She was fresh out of the University of California, and from the photographs he took of her, appeared to be a beautiful 27-year-old exhilarated by the radical times she found herself living.

A yellowing photograph he kept of her shows an attractive dark-haired young woman with a broad smile, her shoulders peeking out of a tank top against a background of cool Cadillac convertibles. Her eyes are crinkled up with laughter as she leans in towards the photographer, presumably Legassick, her partner.

Her job for the Defence and Aid Fund was to travel to South Africa, meet secretly with the remnants of the underground movements and assist them in receiving desperately needed payments from the fund.

“She was recruited to make contact with friends and families and to find out how to send money clandestinely to them, as this was forbidden.”

She left for South Africa and travelled extensively. At the time of her death, she was on her last visit, to the Eastern Cape.

Legassick said her last letter to him from Cape Town had recorded that the security branch was on to her. “She wrote from Cape Town that she thought she was being followed and she left very hurriedly for the Eastern Cape. The next thing I heard of the plane crash.”

Legassick kept his terrible secret for more than 30 years. But this week he handed over his photographs of Rosenthal and an obituary he wrote at the time.

It reads, in part: “Through some accident or fate, she died in mid-stride, expressing through involvement her attitude to South Africa: South Africa should be honoured.

“She had been in South Africa for five weeks, in Johannesburg, Natal, Zululand, Cape Town, the Eastern Cape and Transkei, gathering information for the banned Defence and Aid Fund on political prisoners and their families, and on impending political trials, and renewing or establishing contacts between those working for Defence and Aid in South Africa and the offices of Defence and Aid in London.

“She was also gathering information of use to the South African freedom movement. ‘She worked,’ wrote one person who met her in South Africa, ‘beautifully and conscientiously.’

“Throughout her trip she acted with courage, insight and determination. Though she died, she sent out a great deal of information and her last letters were posted a day before she boarded her last flight.

“This she did, and did well, and as an American, she did it for South Africa and for mankind. I believe that she deserves to be remembered now, and when South Africa is free, as one of South Africa’s heroines.”

This week’s revelations have raised more issues:

l Did the news that Rosenthal and Bruwer would be flying on the same plane present the state with an opportunity to rid itself of two opponents?

l Were Rosenthal and Bruwer going to meet? Was she to have been a carrier pigeon conveying a message of reconciliation to the liberation movements from one of the most powerful men in Afrikanerdom?

l The security forces went to extraordinary attempts to render the Rietbok and its passengers invisible to public scrutiny - to the extent, one naval diver said recently, that the plane wreck was netted to the sea bed. Was this an attempt to hide evidence that the plane had been downed by an explosive charge?

Relatives of the Rietbok victims are to make their claims before the truth commission. How much longer will it take before Maharaj sends divers down to find the Rietbok and solve the riddle once and for all?

n The man who found the sunken steamship, the Waratah, is trying to raise R53 000 to fund a search for the Rietbok. Emlyn Brown, a 42-year-old Hout Bay film-maker, has teamed up with Durban seismological experts who own sonar equipment that, he says, can locate the wreckage within 10 hours.

Brown found the Waratah in 1987 in an expedition funded by Clive Cussler, author of seafaring novels such as Raise the Titanic. The Waratah sank in 1909, en route from Durban to Cape Town, and all 211 people on board drowned. Brown’s team found the wreck in 117m of water off the Transkei coast.

Brown has been following the Rietbok story for the past 10 years, amassing affidavits, court records and other official documents relating to the tragedy. He suspects the plane was sabotaged.

“We want to know what finally did happen,” he adds. - ECN Weekend Service

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