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SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Mon Jul 01, 2002 9:58 am

We all know that during the Apartheid days, SAA was also known as SAL and the jets had that wicked ''masked-bandit'' paint scheme, but I was wondering if anyone had some experiences or knowledge to share about the airline during the Apartheid era. For example, in-flight service quality, policies toward non-white/European passengers (if they were even allowed)

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RE: SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Mon Jul 01, 2002 1:51 pm

I once read the "masked" scheme is supposed to repesent a lion.

As for apartheid ops, all pax were treated equally.
However, pilots/cabin crew was an all-white affair.
Service was pretty lousy, but then it's a subsidiary of the railways! Only flew them longhaul once during this era: HKG-SEZ-JNB with a whole 30 pax on board a 747SP... the cabin crew slept across 4 seats the entire way and said if anyone wants anything- go to the galley and get it yourself.
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RE: SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Mon Jul 01, 2002 4:18 pm

Very interesting topic! Has anyone else experience on SA flights during the apartheid era? What routes did SA serve during that time?

NZ1's mother is a disgusting crack-whore and his father is a worthless alcoholic!

RE: SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Mon Jul 01, 2002 7:11 pm

Actually, the 'lion' or 'masked bandit' is a flying springbok (SAA's callsign is Springbok). I flew SAA many times during the apartheid era, always in F (Blue Diamond on long-haul) or C class (on domestic flights). In the premium classes, service was generally very good - it got considerably worse after 'affirmative' jobs were created.

All of SAA's European flights had to fly around the 'bulge' of Africa as they were prohibited from overflying much of the continent. This led to SAA's ordering of the B747SP, which gave them the ability to fly non-stop CPT-LHR.

SAA was used for the transportation of strategic items (especially out of Israel, which had a very close relationship with SA and jointly developed nuclear weapons, missiles, long range artillery and fighter aircraft).

I never encountered any racism on the part of crew members against non-white passengers during that period.
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RE: SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Mon Jul 01, 2002 7:29 pm

They were scheduled to operate a 2 weekly JNB-CPT-MAN service (though often it operated weekly only). However, after numerous countries lifted the ban on SA flights to their country, our service was cut so that the aircraft could be used on these new services, but they did say that they would return (though I would have hoped it would have been before they went to around 3 daily LHR flights!). I think they operated from here 1987 to 1990 (I need to double check).

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RE: SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Mon Jul 01, 2002 9:12 pm

During the apartheid era, SAA had to fly around the horn of Africa. Thus, flight times to Europe were longer, and interestingly enough, fares were higher than on its European counterparts. Thus, SAA had to compete on the basis of service, which it did fairly well. In addition, good service was the airline's way to snub its nose at anti-apartheid attempts to undermine the South African economy - the airlines' equivalent of the "I will survive" song.

Post-aparthed, the airline had no such compunctions, and consequently service standards dropped because the airline could now compete on price alone. The lowering of service standards came from orders from the top, and had precious little to do with the hiring of "affirmative" cabin staff (i.e. non-white staff). If the hiring of Africans were the root cause of low standards, service standards on airlines like Ethiopian and Kenya Airways - both very high - would be abysmal.

Since 2000, we have had numerous personnel fly SAA to South Africa on business and they have had good things to say about it in all classes. I can understant, however, how South African whites, in pangs of racist nostalgia and accustomed to the "good old" days of apartheid pick on everything post-apartheid as being "less than."
Atheism is Myth Understood.

RE: SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Mon Jul 01, 2002 10:16 pm

Jaysit, the 'horn' of Africa is on the East coast (Somalia/Eritrea) - you mean the 'bulge' of West Africa!

The problem with the 'affirmative' staff was that it was impossible for SAA to fire bad people. There were also numerous instances of genuine crew members staying at home and having family members or friends take their place. Morale amongst the experienced (white) crews consequently plummeted amongst those remaining - the best had already 'taken the package' and left SAA.

Fares have nothing to do with service standards - I have had better service on Comair and especially Flitestar than I had on SAA; yet both those airlines offered lower fares than SAA.

I've also flown ET and KQ many times, and the service standards there - though good by African standards - are certainly not up to those of most European airlines or those of 1980s SAA.

I am reliably informed that SAA's current Y class product is abysmal with minimal legroom and poor quality catering. I imagine it was cuts in those areas that allowed then to afford Coleman Andrews' astronomical (and largely undeserved) salary!  Big grin Big grin
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RE: SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Mon Jul 01, 2002 10:31 pm

I flew Durban - London LHR (via Ihl du Sal) in 1982. It was O.K., but nothing very memorable. I remember the steward telling all of the passengers in J class that he would not eat the breakfast the was loaded in Ihl du Sal for that leg. It was pretty bad. The wallpaper on the SP had a really interesting "game animal" motif. A friend recently flew the ATL-JNB flight and said it was excellent.
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RE: SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Mon Jul 01, 2002 10:35 pm

I have flown both the ATL and JFK SAA flights in the last year. the ATL was in F and it was on the first 747 to be refit w/the new F class cabin. CLearly it was excellent and most enjoyable. I just returned from JNB via JFK in economy and it was far and away the worst I have ever seen or would like to see again. NO, I repeat, NO legroom, horrid service by people who seemed more interested in anything but the passangers, and just miserable. I will not fly SAA economy again. 14 hrs. is to long to have my legs in my throat.
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RE: SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Mon Jul 01, 2002 11:40 pm


First of all this is an excelent topic, credits go to AerLingus!!! SAA had a great partner in Europe, and that was Portugal!!!! I think during many years TAP had a fleet strategy directly related with SAA. If you look closely TAP had all the airliners SAA during a period of time, lets look:

707's in mid 60's - SAA started in early 60's with 344's
727-100's - Also TAP ordered 727-100's in mid 60's
747's in early 70's - TAP also had 747's almost at the same time like SAA.

About routes SAA got a great shot when they used Cape Verde islands as a stop for their intercontinental services, at that time these islands where still portuguese. And finnally SAA and TAP had the same problem, they couldn't fly over Africa!!!

Portugal changed their policy in 1974 but South Africa still had problems untill mid 80's, so at one time our airline TAP jumped ahead earlier than SAA. In the 80's SAA had a lot of flights to Europe passing by Lisbon - Rome, Madrid, Athens, Zurich - all those flights had a stop in Lisbon and they had traffic rights from Lisbon to Europe - I had the chance to fly SAA in 1983/08/11 from Athens to Lisbon, I flew in a SAA 747 ( ZS-SAO ), the flight lasted about 4 hours but it was excelent. The service was good and the flight was about 60% full. The service was great too and it was fun to arrive at Lisbon in a 747 from another country in Europe. So I have great memories about that excelent flight. Another thing to notice is that many of those flights that passed by Lisbon where operated with the SAA 747SP-44. I'll never forget that on the way to Athens I should get their SP service but I lost the flight..... So I had to fly via Rome - 737-200 TAP from Lisbon to Rome and then Alitalia 727-200 Adv. from Rome to Athens, but I lost my chance to fly in a 747SP!!!
That was a great summer trip to Greece!!!
CV990, the Maserati of the skies!
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RE: SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Tue Jul 02, 2002 10:17 am

I flew SAA many times in the 70s from CPT and JNB to numerous european destinations. Their First Class service on their 747-244Bs was excellent.
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RE: SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Tue Jul 02, 2002 7:07 pm

Reminds me of the true story of a 100% full BA flight at Heathrow bound for Jo'Berg that couldn't push back as a woman down in Economy was refusing to take her seat. The Cabin Manager went back down to work out the fuss, and was greeted by the sight of a middle aged white woman, speaking quite loudly in a strong Afrikaans accent, who was demanding another seat as she would not sit next to a "kaffir" (think that was the expression used) on the flight. The coloured man in the seat next to this woman was fairly embarassed about it all, rather than angry. The Cabin Manager tried to explain there weren't any seats left on the plane for her to move to and she would have to take her seat or be removed from the plane. All to no avail, as she refused to sit next to him, and started carrying on about being kicked off. Cabin manager says righto, wait one minute and goes off up the front, thinking if he tries to get her off, there will be a lot of time wasted and a major delay, so he's seeing if there is any seat whatsoever left on the plane. Comes back to the scene in Y about 5 minutes later and says to the woman, "it is as I thought, there is not one seat left in economy or business class. There is however 1 seat left in First Class". At this, the woman slips a Cheshire cat grin, and raises the shoulders and breasts with a haughty attitude and goes to gather her carryons. The Cabin Manager then turns to the coloured man and says, "Sir, if you would forgive my intrusion as it is an imposition to ask you to move now that you are settled I know, but would you mind terribly if we moved you into the First Class cabin?" And they both walked off to First with the Y cabin applauding their every step.
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RE: SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Tue Jul 02, 2002 7:53 pm

AI...and the point of your story is? The topic is SAA during the apartheid years, not spreading aviation "urban legends" around-designed purely as a stab towards Afrikaners and white South Africans in general. This country has come along way in the past eight years. People on all sides of the socio-plitical fence have gone through dramatic and often traumatic experiences, and are trying hard to build a better SA, then people like you come along with such ridiculous posts because it's easy to target some groups.
SA-JET (and proud of it!!!!!!)
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RE: SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Tue Jul 02, 2002 9:32 pm

The great mystery of SAA Apartheid operations is:
What caused the B747 "Heildelburg" to go down?
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RE: SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Tue Jul 02, 2002 10:53 pm

My father flew to South Africa in the late 70s on business and his recollection (rusty, I may add) was that SAA treated its passengers of color no worse or no better than anyone else. Remember that the Apartheid-era governments granted non-white foreign nationals "White" status while they were in the country for a visit. Yes, it sounds pathetic today but history is full of its ugly moments.
Atheism is Myth Understood.

RE: SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Tue Jul 02, 2002 11:44 pm

Whiskeyflyer - actually, it was the Helderberg not the 'Heidelberg'!

In November 1987, a Boeing 747-244 Combi ZS-SAS belonging to South African Airways crashed some 270km off Mauritius following a fire. The cause of the fire has remained a mystery and there has been much speculation as to the nature of an illicit cargo that was allegedly being carried.

I posted this about a year ago:

I've put together about six pages that I will have posted on the IASA web-site tomorrow after proof-reading (and I will then pass on to you the URL's). Much of it will be familiar to you - but some of it may not. I've reproduced the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Findings and Transcript so that anyone who comes across it on the IASA site can put their own opinions in context. But I would guess that you are familiar with that. Let me make a few observations about why this crash was destined to be confusingly tainted by plot/counter-plot and ongoing intrigue.

a. In the climate of fear and suspicion that prevailed at the time under PW Botha's apartheid goverment and with the hostilities in Angola and Namibia, people could be forgiven for naturally assuming that there was more than met the eye regarding the Nov 87 Helderberg crash. In fact it became a signal example of how hard it is to keep secrets under wraps.

b. Armscor was shipping in all sorts of munitions (explosives and propellants) via SAA because of the arms embargo, the war and because they had tacit support from the US (because of US political opposition to Soviet supported Cuban troops fighting in Angola against South African led forces). This Armscor shipping secret was shared by enough people that it eventually had to become public property, as it did.

c. On 22 Sept 79 (as a reward for helping the Israelis test their own weapon) South Africa had acquired nuclear weapons status when their first low yield weapon was detonated in the South Atlantic. Like the Israelis, SA politicians thereafter saw the possession of their semi-covert tactical nuclear capability as another factor in being able to wield greater political and military influence in Africa.

d. Helderberg was a 747 Combi (i.e. a hybrid freighter by design). As such it was one of the last designs preceding the 747-400 and 747-400F and likely had the Kapton wiring that the -400 had introduced in it, just a little later (rather than the poly-x wiring of the early 747 Classics - that was later found to age poorly in the TWA800 investigation). The Helderberg had a significant cargo-carrying capacity and that is why it was only carrying 159 passengers. The cargo was likely to have included much highly combustible material. This was reflected in the Captain's remarks and the crew's derisory CVR comments - once they heard what they were carrying.

e. The first Helderberg investigation was conducted with an acute awareness by SAA, Armscor and the SA Government that Lloyds would likely deny any claims pay-out - if it were to emerge that SAA had been regularly shipping munitions covertly . This was later admitted to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Inquiry by the SAA CEO.

f. Suspicion surrounded the Tupolev crash that caused the death (in 1986) of Samora Machel and complicity by SA was universally assumed. This extrapolated into similar suppositions regarding the later crash.

g. So if it was to happen that the Helderberg had developed a wiring-initiated fire beneath the cabin floor - which (like Valujet 592) propagated into its cargo and brought the plane down, was it likely that such a simple, straightforward explanation would or could ever be accepted in the climate of suspicion that existed at the time? If it ever was, this was later quashed by the later technical breakthrough that managed to decipher the unreadable portion of the CVR - wherein the Captain unmistakably informed others on the flight-deck (shortly before smoke was first smelt in the cabin) that they were carrying a nuclear weapon (Boy George).

So to answer your query about whether it possibly was a wiring-initiated fire, I would have to say it was more likely than any other cause put forward. The reason why other theories fail is that they offer no initiator, just the combustibles. The only exception to that was the supposedly spontaneous combustion abilities of the ammonium perchlorate rocket propellants. However I would suggest that it would have been appropriately packaged simply because of this. The Red Mercury and Lithium batteries are also dangerous cargo from a flammability point of view. The reason why cargo area fires start and burn well are twofold:

1. Cargo areas get knocked around a lot (because of the amount of traffic and the manhandling that goes on in them). The wiring can suffer disproportionately.

2. Fires that start out of sight (in a remote unmonitored cargo area) have a far greater chance of taking hold than one that starts in the flight-deck, toilets or galleys.

The reason why the CVR recording was curtailed early (around dinner time, just 2 hours out of Taipei on their 9 hour journey) is that the fire may have started early on, an electrical malfunction perhaps and started the crew querying Springbok Control. However it's likely that they were ordered to continue (rather than divert) when nothing further then manifested itself. Sometimes a fire in an enclosed area can become smoulderingly quiescent for long periods simply due to low oxygen levels in an unventilated compartment. The later outbreak near to top of descent was probably caused by the ammonium perchlorate shipping containers being breached (this propellant being an oxidizer that would then have rapidly promoted the fire). It is likely that the earlier problem was simply manifested as an electrical problem, not a fire, and that they then secured some electrics that were later restored (after the fire outbreak, or possibly that then re-initiated the fire). i.e. As they approached the descent-point for Mauritius, the captain would have been anxious to restore electrics for weather radar, NAVAIDS, comms etc - and that re-powering of the wiring may have rekindled the fire by provoking the original fault. It also explains why the CVR started up again (and is the only explanation for the CVR being in two distinct periods of the flight, within the first two hours and then continuing straight in and recording the final moments - all on a 30 minute looped tape). I belong to the school that refuses to believe that Captain Dawie Uys would have agreed to carry on, notwithstanding SAA radio'd or standing orders, if there had been an identified fire on board. However the fact remains that SAA was likely to have been very apprehensive about the aircraft going anywhere but Mauritius, even back to Taipei - simply because the contents of the cargo holds would have become common knowledge. The evidence for what was said and what was done and any orders or decisions made via ZUR (Springbok Control) was likely to have been on that purloined ground station tape. That tape had to disappear because it would have contained clear evidence about the munitions being carried - and the orders to carry on to Mauritius. And they even know who disappeared the ZUR tape - and that he later met an untimely death. The man who knew the truth, but kept quiet, was rewarded by being upgraded from a lowly radio operator in 87 to the SAA Area Manager in Miami in 1991.

So the existence of a cover-up is almost without question - and a judicial cover-up by Judge Cecil Margo at that. However don't confuse this aftermath intrigue and threats to persons with the cause of the accident itself. It could very likely have been a wiring-initiated fire but the ramifications of it having brought the plane down necessitated an emergency concealment of not only the type of cargo, but the fact that SAA had been sanctions busting for years in this way. If this had been publicly revealed, then SAA would have lost many of its routes and destinations. A very similar cover-up was carried out by Air NZ after the Mount Erebus DC-10 disaster - simply because they quickly became aware that the accident had been caused by the airline's latest navigation software upload.

I hope this agrees with the other facts (as you know them) and accords with simple logic. The fact that a cover-up was instigated by the crash simply does NOT mean that the fire on board could not have been fairly straightforward in its origins. Because it was a Combi carrying dangerously flammable cargo, any fire on board was going to be that much harder to handle, particularly if it developed sight unseen.

Now onto the likely candidates for the 'illicit cargo' that was alleged to have been carried:

The principal cargo theories are as follows:

1) a complete nuclear device

2) ‘red mercury’

3) ammonium perchorlate

4) proximity fuses or other munitions of war

5) guidance systems for South Africa’s nuclear missiles

Let’s examine these.

1) A complete nuclear device

This is the least likely of all of the cases, as at the time South Africa had six completed warhead systems (plus a further one under construction) lying in storage at the National Accelerator Centre near Stellenbosch. The delivery systems (Jericho-2 SRBM surface to surface missiles, jointly developed by Armscor and an Israeli Aircraft Industries subsidiary) were in storage at a SAAF base ready for transport to the launch site in the Caprivi Strip.

There would have therefore been no need for another device. However, it one had been on board, it would most certainly have merited the level of response that occurred immediately following the loss of the Helderberg from the US Navy.

2) Red Mercury

Despite much investigation and constant rumours of its existence, none has been produced. There is however an interesting Weekly Mail & Guardian article here: which links the SADF to red mercury. The flammability of such material would be questionable – certainly mercury is extremely corrosive.

The very high alleged value – coupled with its alleged strategic uses – would merit the level of operation that happened immediately following the loss of the aircraft.

3) Ammonium Perchlorate

This is the theory introduced by Dr Klatzow at the TRC inquiry held (in-camera) into the loss of the Helderberg.

This has been described as an accelerant used in explosives technology. Certainly, it’s defined as a powerful oxidising agent by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), a part of the United States Department of Labor. They also acknowledge its explosive characteristics.

Somchem, an Armscor subsidiary located near Somerset West was already producing large stocks of AP as early as 1985. It is therefore unlikely that they would need to import more – and if they did, it would be in the mass-production quantities they would require for their munitions work. These sorts of quantities would have been sent by sea or if urgently required, by dedicated cargo aircraft.

Water damage would render it useless and would effectively dissolve away any traces. There would be no need for the level of response that occurred.

4) Proximity Fuses or other Munitions of War

Again, these would generally be carried on dedicated freight aircraft. Passenger aircraft operated by SAA and Trek Airways/Luxavia were used to carry materials that contravened UN and other sanctions; but anything that was deemed to have too significant a risk would be conveyed in military or contracted aircraft, usually described as ‘agricultural equipment’ or ‘machine spare parts’.

Munitions of war, whilst imperilling a successful insurance claim, would not generate the level of response by a major power that occurred.

5) Guidance Systems for South Africa’s Nuclear Missiles

Whilst South Africa had developed jointly with the Israelis the warheads and the delivery systems (the Jericho-2 SRBM, known as the Arniston in South Africa), in 1987 they did not have a suitably accurate and reliable guidance and telemetry system to get the missiles to their target. The Israelis had been provided with suitable packages (which are sizeable) for their deterrents developed and built at Demona, in the Negev Desert. They agreed to provide two of those to South Africa, as part of a secret deal agreed in late 1987. As a back-up plan, an SAAF Buccanneer was modified to allow the 'lobbing' of a nuclear device.

First, though, we need to look at the regional geopolitics of the time – November 1987. Between October 1987 and June 1988, in the fiercest conventional battles on African soil since Erwin Rommel was defeated at El Alamien, the South African Defence Forces (SADF) fought pitched tank and artillery battles with the Angolan army (FAPLA) and its Cuban supporters at Cuito Cuanavale (Operations MODULAR and HOOPER). This small base located in southeastern Angola became important in the military history of Africa, for there the South African army, supposedly the best on the continent, was trapped with its tanks and artillery and held down more than 300 miles from its bases in Namibia. Failing to take Cuito Cuanavale with over 9000 soldiers, even after announcing that it had done so, losing air superiority, and faced with mutinies among black troops and a high casualty rate among whites, the South Africans reached such a desperate situation that President Botha had to fly to the war zone when the operational command of the SADF broke down.

Against this background, President P W Botha, through his Foreign Minister, Pik Botha, issued the Government of Angola an ultimatum – remove the Cubans; the East German and Soviet ‘military advisors’, pilots and aircraft by midnight on December 31 1987 or South Africa would use tactical nukes against them on a 'first strike' basis. The South Africans were terrified that if they did not tip the military balance once more in their favour, then an invasion by East bloc forces spearheaded by Cuban and Angolan troops would be likely by Easter 1988.

The link here gives a detailed summary of South Africa’s nuclear capabilities and the status of events at the time. with another site here:

The systems would not have been shipped directly from Israel as that would have been politically disastrous both for them and for the Americans. The only viable solution was to use a friendly third country – and fellow pariah state – Taiwan as the transhipment point.

To me, this is the most logical nature of the contraband cargo being carried – and pretty much the only thing that fits in with the known facts; as well as being sufficient to cause Captain Uys to continue to Mauritius – which at the time was under effective control by South Africa; and to create the rapid response on the part of the Americans. It is obvious that neither the South African government nor the American government wanted the aircraft to land anywhere that would result in the inadvertent exposure of the systems to the eyes of third parties – nor, since sanctions were in force in the USA against South Africa, did the US want the aircraft landing in one of its military bases where the presence of the systems may be picked up by Soviet spy satellites, intelligence officers or even US military personnel who were not ‘in the know’ and opposed to South Africa. It would have brought down the Reagan Administration.

The morning of the loss of the Helderberg, Plaisance Airport was closed and sealed off when a USAF C141 Starlifter brought in one of the latest mini-submersibles. At the same time, South African Airways and Boeing jointly chartered a German oceanographic research vessel which initially headed directly for the wreckage site and then veered away – presumably to give the Americans time to finish locating whatever they were after.

I personally have little doubt that, had the guidance systems been delivered, they would have been installed on the nukes and in all probability used. Their non-delivery caused the people at the top of the South African government to take stock and realise the awful consequences of what might have happened – and I have hearsay evidence to show that this was indeed one of the things that FW de Klerk used against PW Botha’s supporters during the leadership battle for the National Party the following year. Indeed, this was probably one of the reasons that he was so keen to dismantle the nuclear programme on his assumption of power in order to prevent it falling into the hands of the ANC – and more importantly - their erstwhile backers such as the Libyans.
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RE: SAA Apartheid Era Operations

Wed Jul 03, 2002 3:15 pm

thanks SAS23 for the detailed info.
PS Sorry about my spelling error

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