Rietbok plane crash off East London still shrouded in mystery
No respite for relatives plagued by suspicions on disaster off Eastern Cape coast 52 years on
Wednesday March 13 marked 52 years since South African Airways Flight 406 plummeted into the sea in 1967 on its approach to East London, killing all 25 people on board.
What caused the Rietbok air disaster remains a mystery and continues to trouble the surviving relatives of the doomed passengers.
The failure to recover the victims’ bodies and the presence of two high-profile figures on board has fuelled speculation about a nefarious cover-up by the apartheid government.
The official inquiry, headed by judge Cecil Margo, suggested the captain, Gordon Benjamin Lipawsky, might have suffered a heart attack, resulting in him losing control of the Viscount, and that his first officer, Brian Trenwith, was unable to regain control before the Rietbok crashed into the sea.
However in his book Final Postponement, Margo pointed to structural failure as the reason for the crash.
Margo died in 2000.
Navy diver Malcolm Viviers in 1998 suggested the wreck had in fact been located soon after the crash and claimed that via a video monitor on the SAS Johannesburg he had seen the bodies of passengers still strapped in their seats in the plane.
Dr David Klatzow, an imminent Cape Town-based independent forensic scientist who pointed out flaws in the investigation of the 1987 Helderberg air disaster, was approached about 15 years ago by some relatives of victims of the Rietbok disaster.
Klatzow said they had told him they had been called to the state mortuary to identify the bodies after the crash. However, when they arrived at the mortuary, no bodies were to be found.
“But I was also shown a postmortem report showing one of the family members had died of multiple injuries,” Klatzow said.
“So there was a postmortem report without a body.”
He said there was no question that the investigation into the Rietbok crash had been a sham, and that Margo was notorious for having covered up for the apartheid regime.
“I called him a crook, even when he was still alive,” Klatzow said.
JP Bruwer, at the time the vice-rector of the then University of Port Elizabeth and acting chair of the Broederbond, was on board the doomed plane.
Bruwer’s eldest daughter, Griet le Roux, 75, told the Dispatch about the aftermath of the crash.
“My brother and his wife got a phone call on the night of the crash.
“At the time they were living in Pieketberg in the Western Cape. The mortuary asked them to drive to East London to identify the bodies,” she said.
“So they drove to East London, but when they got there, the people at the mortuary told them there had been a mistake and there were no bodies.
“We found out later that somebody else had booked his flight from Port Elizabeth to
The official inquiry suggested the captain, Gordon Benjamin Lipawsky, might have suffered a heart attack
East London. We don’t know who,” Le Roux said.
In 1998, families of victims approached the Truth and Reconciliation Commission asking for the government to reopen the case, but were denied.
This was the first time Le Roux had the opportunity to meet members of other victims’ families.
“There was one lady who told us how she had also been called by the mortuary workers, who even described the dress her daughter was wearing and the ring on her finger. But again, when they got to the morgue, there were no bodies.”
Le Roux claims her father was targeted because he had the ear of the then leader of apartheid South Africa, Hendrik Verwoerd, and was trying to persuade him to soften apartheid policies.
“My father wrote the speech Verwoerd was due to deliver before he was assassinated. We think Verwoerd was killed to stop him making the speech.
“My aunt told me that after my father attended Verwoerd’s memorial service, he told her, ‘I’m the next one’.”
Ian Boyd, a commercial pilot, is the son of the late James Boyd, who at the time of the crash was a pilot for SAA.
On Tuesday, March 14 1967, James Boyd and fellow crew members arrived in East London from Johannesburg as part of the salvage operations.
According to Boyd, his father said the wreckage was about 130ft below, easily accessible to divers.
“On the Friday of that week he was found dead in his hotel room at seven in the morning.”
Boyd’s mother was told he had died of a heart attack.
“My father was 51 years old. He was healthy – he was a Springbok golfer. There was no postmortem and we were never shown the body.
“Before he died, my father phoned my mother to tell her that he thought there were shady things going on.”
Although his father died in East London, the death certificate was signed in Benoni.
East London author and investigator Alan D Elsdon, a former policeman who wrote a book called The Tall Assassin, posits that a bomb was placed on the Rietbok by a member of the Bureau of State Security.