Helderberg victim’s son wants truth
Is it possible there was something more sinister behind the famous 1980s plane crash?
Frenske Otzen was 10 days away from giving birth to her first child when her husband, Peter, boarded flight SA 295 from Taiwan to Johannesburg.
Otzen was preparing to leave the couple’s home when she heard a radio report: contact with Flight SA 295 had been lost. All “interested parties” should call the following number.
Otzen dialled the number. “Hello,” she told the operator. “My husband is on Flight SA 295.”
“How tragic,” came the reply. “Let me pass you on to my supervisor.”
The supervisor explained: “We’ve lost contact with the plane over the Indian Ocean.”
Otzen wasn’t worried. She asked the supervisor to contact her when ground staff managed to get in touch with the pilot.
Much later, sitting at home surrounded by concerned family and friends, she realised what had happened: the 8pm SABC news bulletin opened with images of helicopters soaring above the ocean, bits of debris floating on the water.
Flight SA 295 – a Boeing 747 known as the Helderberg – was lost. All 159 people on board were dead.
Ten days later, Peter Otzen – a young man who shared his dead father’s name – was born. And 25 years on, the younger Otzen is a man on a mission.
A postgraduate law student at the University of Cape Town, Otzen is working closely with one of South Africa’s top forensic experts, Dr David Klatzow, to unravel the story of the Helderberg.
He is also putting his legal training to good use: Otzen, Klatzow and well-known advocate Paul Hoffman have teamed up to challenge President Jacob Zuma to reopen the investigation into the Helderberg crash.
It would not be the first time the crash was investigated.
An official commission of inquiry chaired by the late Judge Cecil Margo in the late 1980s found that a fire in the main deck cargo hold had led to the crash.
Nobody, Margo ruled, could be blamed. Klatzow begs to differ.
In his autobiography, Steeped in Blood, Klatzow – who was initially retained to work on the case by Boeing’s lawyers – suggested the fire could be directly linked to the arms embargo against apartheid-era South Africa.
Klatzow believes the Helderberg was being used to transport weapons components, specifically the parts of a rocket.
These ignited, he argues, and the pilot knew he could not land because the plane would be searched, the components would be found and the international backlash against South Africa would be enormous.
The Helderberg crash was also investigated by the TRC during the mid-1990s.
The hearings into the crash were held in camera and transcripts were released only in 2000. At the time, the country’s transport ministry enlisted the police to investigate whether any new evidence was available that would justify reopening the inquiry into the Helderberg.
In October 2002, then minister Dullah Omar announced that no evidence had been found that would lead to a new inquiry.
Otzen is not prepared to give up. He started working with Klatzow about two years ago.
Late last year, Hoffman wrote to the presidency on behalf of Otzen, asking Zuma to exercise his executive authority and order a new probe into the fate of the Helderberg.
They’ve received a reply – their letter has been noted and the president is applying his mind.
Hoffman believes Otzen – using Klatzow’s research and theory – has presented “quite a compelling case that the Helderberg wasn’t an accident at all”.
“If the president ignores us or says no, then it is open to Mr Otzen to follow (arms deal activist) Terry Crawford-Browne’s example and approach the Constitutional Court to compel the president to reopen the case.”
Otzen is candid about the fact that he can’t possibly afford an approach to the Constitutional Court alone.
He is hoping that other Helderberg victims’ families will learn of the work he is doing and contact him – if only for moral support.
It was when he started studying law that he became interested in finding some sort of closure and peace for himself, his mother and other victims’ families.
His biggest drive in his search for answers is the desire to offer his unborn children only the truth about their unknown grandfather’s death.
Even if he gets answers, though, he will always be a man trying to live without a father he never knew.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be a dad – what do you do?”