Let the Helderberg rest in peace

Radio 702 outdid its tabloid instincts last week by giving air time to loony-tunes theories on the cause of the 1987 Helderberg air disaster. Sixteen years after the event, someone called Brian Watkins, once a minor South African Airways functionary, has stepped forward with a selection of rumour, hearsay and gossip — all apparently acquired about seventh hand. “So-and-so was in the hangar the next morning and he heard so-and-so say that so-and-so had heard a report about someone hearing someone else screaming over the radio at Captain Dawie Uys the night before …”

Duly some 702 producer fell for it and had Watkins into the studio to talk about his sudden need to reveal the vital clues to the Helderberg crash he has so bravely suppressed for more than 16 years. Vanessa Brereton has got nothing on this.

Not satisfied with one wing nut, 702 asked self-taught, self-appointed international civil aviation accident investigator David Klatzow to waddle over to the studios and entertain us all over again with his bizarre and long discredited theories about the accident. To anyone with even a beginner’s knowledge of the methodologies of civil aviation, what Klatzow has to offer is instantly comical.

For balance, 702 gave this all to a presenter completely out of his depth, who sat back and let the balderdash flow. Why can’t the station get in someone who knows something about the subject? Someone to kick over the buckets of nonsense?

That 702 is a fall guy for goofball conspiracy theories was there for all to see. But 702 should take heart. It’s by no means the worst agency when it comes to lending credibility to absurd hypotheses on aircraft accidents. That laurel goes to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and its farcical secret hearings into both the Helderberg disaster and the 1986 crash of the Tupolev TU-134 that killed the then president of Mozambique, Samora Machel.


The 1998 TRC hearings were held in camera, the reason given at the time was the old standard about the “safety of witnesses”, a fit-all-sizes excuse because it’s both vague and totally unprovable. The TRC published its findings on the two accidents without releasing the actual transcripts of the hearings. Eventually the TRC did release the transcript of the Helderberg hearing and its pitiful structure and content is up there for all to see and wonder at.

Guess who had been appointed as “expert” prosecutors by the TRC hearing chairperson. First of all, Klatzow, then, adding insult to lampoon, he was backed up by that internationally recognised authority on aircraft accidents, Deborah Patta. She’s the one who, in one of her more memorable investigations, claimed that the surveillance radar at Maputo airport had been switched off on the night of the Tupolev accident. According to Debbie, South African apartheid agents had bribed the radar operator to switch off the equipment when Machel’s plane was approaching Maputo, thereby ensuring it would fly into the mountains. What Debs forgot to mention was that Maputo airport didn’t actually have any radar equipment to switch off.

If anyone should want to wonder at the parody that was the TRC Helderberg inquiry, it’s up there on the government website. A possible reason they held it back for so long before publication was that it was so embarrassing. Klatzow and Patta trying to outdo each other as Clarence Darrows is a sight so pathetic as to draw tears. And the TRC lapped it all up.

In prosecuting its privileged inquiries, the TRC ignored some basic courtesies. Judge Cecil Margo was never even informed that the reports — which carry his name and those of seven other individuals, including one of the world’s most acknowledged aircraft accident investigators — were to be hauled up for covert evaluation by nameless eyes. The then official controlling body of civil aviation in South Africa, the Division of Civil Aviation (DCA), was denied observer status at the hearings. The DCA individuals who organised and directed the Helderberg salvage efforts were also denied. If you’re going to behave like idiots, best do it where no one can see you.

And the transcript of the Tupolev accident remains concealed from public view. The TRC’s findings on the accident, though, have been published and they’re as preposterous as those of the Helderberg.

If the TRC is to honour its core brief of bringing truth to light, it should release the transcript of its Tupolev accident secret hearings. In the past year I have sent no less than four faxes to the offices of Transport Minister Dullah Omar, asking why the public is being denied sight of the transcripts, asking when they will be released and what the reasons are for their being withheld. Not one fax has been so much as acknowledged.

It’s quite clear that someone, somewhere in what remains of the TRC hierarchy doesn’t want to serve the public the second course of the dog’s breakfast they called hearings. After the Helderberg travesty who would?

See Not the Mail & Guardian on January 1 for fresh theories on Lockerbie

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