Defend Truth


South Africa must investigate the death of Dag Hammarskjöld


Henning Melber is director emeritus/senior adviser of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and former research director/senior research associate with the Nordic Africa Institute, both in Uppsala, Sweden. He is Extraordinary Professor at the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria and the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies at the University of the Free State.

UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld was one of only four people to have been posthumously awarded a Nobel Prize (for Peace), and was described by the then-US president, John F Kennedy, as ‘the greatest statesman of our century’. His death in 1961 has sparked many theories, among them that a South African right-wing paramilitary organisation, or South African mercenaries, were responsible.

Shortly after midnight on 18 September 1961, a plane crashed when approaching Ndola, a mining town in Northern Rhodesia (today Zambia) bordering the Congo. On board were UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and 15 other people. They were on their way to meet Moïse Tshombe, leader of the secessionist Katanga Province, to find a solution to the conflict in the Congo.

All but one of those on board died in the wreckage. The bodyguard Harold Julien succumbed to his injuries six days later in a local hospital. He could have been saved if treated properly. His eyewitness report of the crash was also neglected.

Foul play was not ruled out. The inquiry by a United Nations Commission noted that “the Rhodesian inquiry… had reached the conclusion that the probable cause of the crash was pilot error. The Commission, while it cannot exclude this possibility, has found no indication that this was the probable cause of the crash.”

UN Resolution 1759 (XVII) of 26 October 1962 therefore tasked the secretary-general “to inform the General Assembly of any new evidence which may come to his attention”. This left the door open for a return to the matter.

Fifty years later, Susan Williams published a book which pointed to omissions, flaws and failures of the earlier investigations. It triggered a new inquiry conducted by an independent commission of jurists. It submitted its report in 2013.

As a result, official investigations by the United Nations were resumed. The United Nations Association Westminster Branch in London has since then provided regular updates on developments.

In 2017, the former Chief Justice of Tanzania, Mohamed Chande Othman, was appointed as Eminent Person, tasked with further investigations. He concluded in his first report that an aerial attack “would have been possible using resources existing in the area at the time” and “that there is likely to be much relevant material that remains undisclosed”.

Othman identified “the continued non-disclosure of potentially relevant new information in the intelligence, security and defence archives of Member States” as “the biggest barrier to understanding the full truth”. He stressed that “the burden of proof has now shifted to Member States to show that they have conducted a full review of records and archives in their custody or possession, including those that remain classified, for potentially relevant information”.

In support of Othman’s report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres recommended “that relevant Member States appoint an independent and high-ranking official to conduct a dedicated and internal review of their archives, in particular their intelligence, security and defence archives, to determine whether they hold relevant information”.

Following a Swedish draft resolution co-sponsored by 70 member states, the General Assembly extended Othman’s mandate. He presented his second report in September 2019.

New information, Othman concluded, “highlights the fact that there were many more foreign mercenaries in and around Katanga, including pilots, than had been considered by earlier inquiries”. These had the logistics and necessary conditions (suitable planes and airfields) to intercept the plane. For Othman, “it remains plausible that an external attack or threat was a cause of the crash”.

New information also confirmed that the crash site was discovered much earlier than officially reported – and testifies to the deliberate neglect of the only survivor. As Othman notes, this “calls into question the acts of various Governments directly after the crash and leaves open the issue of why the earlier crash discovery time was not reported”.

Othman based his conclusions partly on reports of the “independent high-ranking officials” appointed by several member states. However, states where most discoveries could be expected did not comply. South Africa finally assigned a high-ranking official at Dirco in May 2019 with the task. But no report has so far been submitted.

Othman therefore recommended:

  • That an independent person be appointed to continue the work;
  • That key member states be again urged to (re)appoint independent high-ranking officials to determine whether relevant information exists within their security, intelligence and defence archives;
  • That a conclusion be reached as to whether member states have complied with this process; and
  • That key documents be made public.

In December 2019, another Swedish draft resolution was adopted with a record number of 128 co-sponsoring countries (including South Africa, but as before without the support of the US and the UK). It extended Othman’s mandate.

This has a significant symbolic meaning. The Westminster Branch of the UK’s UN Association considers “a record number of co-sponsoring Member States to be a clear indication to those few states which have failed to cooperate”. It should be a strong reminder that it is time for South Africa to deliver.

It is one thing if the US and the UK are unwilling to assess and disclose classified material. The assumption that they want to avoid embarrassment by not sharing what they know is not too far-fetched. But South Africa has long since eschewed the traditions of the apartheid regime.

Concerned about apartheid, Hammarskjöld had visited South Africa in early 1961.

His death was celebrated in the white settler-minority communities. It is inconceivable that local archives contain no information on what happened at Ndola. South African agencies and individuals played an active role in the region. This needs to be closely investigated.

Democratic South Africa should deal with such skeletons in its closet. It must come to terms with a past which is not one of today’s government. As Guterres stated in his letter to the General Assembly:

“It remains our shared responsibility to pursue the full truth of what happened on that fateful night in 1961. We owe this to Dag Hammarskjöld and to the members of the party accompanying him. However, we also owe this to the United Nations.” DM


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