Pik’s Locker­bie mys­tery

For­mer for­eign af­fairs min­is­ter de­nied he knew about bomb on the plane


WHAT do Mats Wi­lan­der, the ten­nis player, and for­mer Na­tional Party min­is­ter Pik Botha have in com­mon?

Botha died re­cently and his colour­ful life has been mostly eu­lo­gised in the me­dia. Botha and Wi­lan­der both missed Pan Am Flight 103, which crashed over Locker­bie in Scot­land on De­cem­ber 21, 1988, killing 270 peo­ple. At the time Wi­lan­der was the No 1 ten­nis player in the world and that year, 1988, had seen him achieve a great feat when he won three Grand Slams – the Aus­tralian, French and US Open ten­nis cham­pi­onships. Wi­lan­der had made a reser­va­tion but did not take a seat on the flight.

“Those whom the gods love, die young” is an adage from Greek mythol­ogy but for the hand­some, curly-haired Swede the gods were clearly mak­ing an ex­cep­tion when he missed Pan Am Flight 103. Since that fate­ful day, Wi­lan­der has had a won­der­ful ca­reer and made a lot of money. He now spends much of his time liv­ing on an 33-hectare es­tate in Hai­ley, Idaho, US, which is part of the Sun Val­ley ski re­sort. He mar­ried Sonya (née Mul­hol­land), a South African-born model from Sum­merveld, Dur­ban.

On Jan­uary 11, 1989 Botha trav­elled to Stock­holm in Swe­den with other for­eign dig­ni­taries – in­clud­ing UN Sec­re­tary-gen­eral Javier Pérez de Cuél­lar – for the fu­neral of the UN’S Com­mis­sioner for South-west Africa, Bernt Carls­son. Botha was in­ter­viewed by Sue Macgre­gor on BBC Ra­dio 4’s To­day pro­gramme, and al­leged that he and a 22-strong South African del­e­ga­tion, who were booked to fly from Lon­don to New York on De­cem­ber 21, 1988, had been tar­geted by the ANC. How­ever, hav­ing been alerted to these ANC plans to kill him, Botha said he man­aged to out­smart them by tak­ing the ear­lier Pan Am Flight 101 from Heathrow to JFK Air­port, New York.

De­spite hav­ing the knowl­edge, the ques­tion re­mains why he did not tell the air­line se­cu­rity and alert the other pas­sen­gers that their deaths were go­ing to fol­low in a few min­utes. Is there any other con­clu­sion but that Botha was happy for them to go to their deaths?

The no­tion that Botha was warned is bol­stered by state­ments made by Oswald Le Win­ter, who worked for the CIA from 1968 to 1985, and Tiny Row­land in the 1994 film The Mal­tese Dou­ble Cross. This film was made by Al­lan Fran­covich, who later died un­der sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances.

In the film Le Win­ter quotes Row­land as dis­clos­ing that Botha had told him he and 22 South African del­e­gates were go­ing to New York for the Namib­ian In­de­pen­dence Rat­i­fi­ca­tion Cer­e­mony and were all booked on the Pan Am Flight 103. They were given a warn­ing from a source which could not be ig­nored and changed flights. The source re­vealed by Le Win­ter is the SA Bu­reau for State Se­cu­rity (BOSS), which he claims had close con­tacts with Is­raeli in­tel­li­gence and the CIA.

The grave mis­giv­ings of the pub­lic about this tragedy per­suaded a rel­a­tive of a vic­tim to write to re­tired South African MP Colin Eglin of the Demo­cratic Party, ask­ing him to make en­quiries on the South African side. On June 5, 1996, Eglin asked Jus­tice Min­is­ter Dul­lah Omar in Par­lia­ment if Pik Botha and his en­tourage “had any plans to travel on this flight (Pan Am Flight 103) or had reser­va­tions for this flight; if so, why were the plans changed?” In re­ply on June 12, 1996, Omar stated he had been in­formed by Botha that shortly be­fore fi­nal­is­ing their book­ing ar­range­ments for travel from Heathrow to New York, they learnt of an ear­lier flight from Lon­don to New York, namely, Pan Am Flight 101. They were booked and trav­elled on this flight to New York.

Eglin wrote back on July 18, 1996, and added: “Since then I have done some more in­for­mal prod­ding. This has led me to the per­son who made the reser­va­tions on be­half of the South African for­eign min­is­ter Pik Botha and his en­tourage. This per­son as­sures me that he and no one else was re­spon­si­ble for the reser­va­tions, and the reser­va­tion made in South Africa for the South African group was orig­i­nally made on PA 101, de­part­ing Lon­don at 11:00 on 21 De­cem­ber 1988. It was never made on PA 103 and con­se­quently was never changed. He made the reser­va­tion on PA 101 be­cause it was the most con­ve­nient flight con­nect­ing with South African Air­ways Flight SA 234 ar­riv­ing at Heathrow at 07:20 on 21 De­cem­ber 1988.”

Eglin gave the vic­tim’s fam­ily the as­sur­ance that he had “ev­ery rea­son to trust the per­son re­ferred to” as he had been given a copy of “rough work­ing notes and ex­tracts from his per­sonal di­ary of those days”. In his let­ter Eglin wrote: “In the cir­cum­stances, I have to ac­cept that an as­ser­tion that the reser­va­tions of the South African group were ei­ther made or changed as a re­sult of warn­ings that might have been re­ceived is not cor­rect.”

Could the “rough work­ing notes” and the “per­sonal di­ary of those days” have been fab­ri­cated to save Pik Botha’s skin from a most em­bar­rass­ing and pos­si­bly crim­i­nal act? Two years be­fore Eglin asked the ques­tions in Par­lia­ment, Botha was con­tacted by the press and his replies were re­ported on a Reuters Textline of Novem­ber 12, 1994, un­der the head­ing “South African Min­is­ter de­nies know­ing of Locker­bie Bomb”.

The ar­ti­cle said: “For­mer for­eign min­is­ter Pik Botha de­nied on Satur­day he had been aware in ad­vance of a bomb on board Pan Am Flight 103 which ex­ploded over Locker­bie in Scot­land in 1988, killing 270 peo­ple. The min­is­ter con­firmed through his spokesman that he and his party had been booked on the ill-fated air­liner but switched flights af­ter ar­riv­ing early in Lon­don from Jo­han­nes­burg.”

There is fur­ther con­fir­ma­tion of the fab­ri­ca­tion from other sources. On Novem­ber 12, 1994, Botha’s spokesper­son, Ger­rit Pre­to­rius, told Reuters that Botha and 22 South African ne­go­tia­tors, in­clud­ing De­fence Min­is­ter Mag­nus Malan and For­eign Af­fairs di­rec­tor Neil van Heer­den, had been booked on Pan Am Flight 103. He said “the flight from Jo­han­nes­burg ar­rived early in Lon­don and the em­bassy got us on to an ear­lier flight. Had we been on Pan Am Flight 103 the im­pact on South Africa and the re­gion would have been mas­sive. It hap­pened on the eve of the sign­ing of the tri­par­tite agree­ments,” said Pre­to­rius, re­fer­ring to pacts signed at the UN head­quar­ters on De­cem­ber 22, 1988, which ended South African and Cuban in­volve­ment in An­gola, and which led to Namib­ian in­de­pen­dence.

An­other state­ment by Pre­to­rius was in ap­pallingly bad taste: “The min­is­ter is flattered by the al­le­ga­tion of near-om­ni­science.” Pre­to­rius goes on to ex­plain again how the change had come about. “But we… got to Lon­don an hour early and the em­bassy got us on an ear­lier flight. When we got to JFK (air­port) a con­tem­po­rary of mine said, ‘Thank God you weren’t on 103. It crashed over Locker­bie’.”

There is fur­ther con­fir­ma­tion of the change of flight from an­other spokesper­son for Pik Botha. “Had he known of the bomb, no force on Earth would have stopped him from see­ing to it that Flight 103 with its deadly cargo would not have left the air­port,” his spokesper­son Roland Dar­roll told Reuters af­ter con­sult­ing the min­is­ter.

Theresa Papen­fus has writ­ten a ha­giog­ra­phy of Botha and his times, which gives a fur­ther ver­sion of the events of that fate­ful night. Papen­fus says: “A for­mer mem­ber of staff re­lated that there had been a hitch in the travel ar­range­ments. The SAA flight took off from Jo­han­nes­burg for Lon­don on 20 De­cem­ber 1988… I was con­cerned with the travel ar­range­ments to New York. Be­cause Pik pre­ferred Frank­furt Air­port to Heathrow, the party was booked on (Pan Am) Flight 103 from Frank­furt via Lon­don to New York.”

This con­flicts di­a­met­ri­cally with the state­ment that there never was a book­ing on Flight 103. Papen­fus goes on to say: “It was the third sched­uled daily transat­lantic flight from Lon­don to John F Kennedy Air­port in New York. But this sched­ule would have in­ter­fered with af­fairs of the heart. The of­fi­cial had a fi­ancée in Lon­don and he sim­ply had to see her. He ar­ranged for the del­e­ga­tion to take an ear­lier flight, from Jo­han­nes­burg to Lon­don and then from Lon­don to New York.”

The of­fi­cial who changed the book­ings was clearly with Botha. Papen­fus says: “Once they ar­rived at New York the of­fi­cial had to at­tend to the usual ad­min­is­tra­tive du­ties of min­is­te­rial staff. While the min­is­ters were be­ing whisked away from the air­port in cars their bag­gage had to be col­lected and their pass­ports stamped. Through the glass pan­els he could see peo­ple show­ing signs of hys­te­ria. Some were cry­ing, oth­ers scream­ing and a few were ly­ing on the ground. ‘Amer­i­cans!’ he mut­tered to him­self. Then he was told by a mem­ber of the se­cret ser­vice that the Boe­ing on Pan Am Flight 103 had crashed. This was the flight on which the South African del­e­ga­tion had orig­i­nally been booked.”

Papen­fus ad­mits a fur­ther in­trigu­ing de­tail: “In re­sponse to en­quiries the De­part­ment of For­eign Af­fairs ini­tially of­fi­cially de­nied that seats had ever been booked for the min­is­te­rial party on Pan Am Flight 103. They said that the book­ings had been on Flight 101 right from the be­gin­ning.” Papen­fus con­cludes: “The tragedy claimed the life of the UN’S Com­mis­sioner for South West Africa, Mr Bernt Carls­son of Swe­den. He was sup­posed to have been present at the sign­ing of the agree­ments.”

The ques­tion re­mains whether he was not the real tar­get of those who put the bomb on Pan Am 103.

Ni­chol­son is a re­tired judge of the High Court in Kwazulu-natal.

African News Agency (ANA) Archives

THE nose of Pan Am Flight 103 lies in a field out­side the vil­lage of Locker­bie, Scot­land. | AP

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