26 February 1999

South Africa: High-flying Judge Cecil Margo

Johannesburg — FINAL POSTPONEMENT: REMINISCENCES OF A CROWDED LIFE by Cecil Margo (Jonathan Ball): On the back of the dustcover of Judge Cecil Margo's autobiography is a photograph of the author who stands in front of a painting depicting an extraordinary sight.

As it might have been seen from the air, this is the virtually simultaneous line- abreast take-off of 18 RAF Boston bombers, from a stretch of hard North African desert. The scene is of the order of some super Hollywood effect. Great plumes of dust raised by the aircrafts' 36 propellers rise behind them as they get airborne into six-aircraft line-abreast bombing formations.

Margo was among the pilots of this squadron and was to complete three tours of duty, in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, flying no fewer than 150 strike missions and eventually assuming command of the renowned 24 Bomber Squadron of the South African Air Force.

His contributions and his bravery were recognised when he was awarded two of the most prestigious Commonwealth medals, the Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Flying Cross. In the annals of wartime bomber commands, Margo's name remains of legend.

When he signed up for active service, Margo was already a practicing advocate at the Johannesburg bar, a career he admits he was looking forward to re-entering when the war was over. It was a wish to be fulfilled and then, as he was developing a busy law practice, suddenly interrupted in 1948 when Margo was called upon to serve as a senior adviser to David Ben-Gurion in the establishment and organisation of the Israeli Air Force. Back at law, Margo took silk in 1959 and, in l971, was appointed as a judge of the Supreme Court.

Margo's career is, of course, best known for his significant contributions to aircraft accident investigation, a field where he owns an enviable international reputation. It was Margo who was appointed to investigate the DC-6 accident, in 1961 near Ndola in what was the Central African Federation, and in which the then Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammerskjold was killed.

Later Margo was to preside over the very public investigations into the loss off East London in 1967 of the SAA Viscount airliner, the Rietbok; the 1968 crash after take-off from Windhoek of the SAA Boeing 707, the Pretoria; the accident in 1986, just inside South African territory, of the Tupolev aircraft, which killed Samora Machel and 35 others; and the loss in 1987 of 159 lives in the crash of the SAA Boeing 747, the Helderberg in the sea North East of Mauritius.

In Margo the discipline of air accident investigation enjoyed the advantages of a truly providential array of skills, experience and learning. A pilot himself, a noted and experienced jurist with a wide knowledge of engineering - he was an honorary fellow of the South African Institute of Mechanical Engineers - it is hard to imagine a better set of qualifications to serve the enquiry into any air accident. As an authority on air safety and accident investigation there is probably yet no more rounded and competent a figure.

What's more, as was demonstrated in all the accident investigations which Margo chaired, was his insistence that the investigations were open to the public and that scrutiny was encouraged by all interested parties. Margo's hearings into both the Tupolev and the Helderberg accidents were models of judicial probity, respect for evidence and the observable processes of law.

In the book Margo devotes individual chapters to clear and unemotional explanations of what actually happened in, especially, the crashes of the Tupolev and the Helderberg. To the intelligent reader these once and for all should put to rest the host of populist conspiracy theories which recently have bedevilled these records.

These chapters should especially be seen in the light of the rather pitiful suggestions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the Tupolev and the Helderberg enquiries should be reopened.

Where Margo held his hearings in public, where he was advised by the very best in the way of international experts, the TRC held their hearings in secret. Some of their "expert witnesses" still cower under pseudonyms. It was all hugger-mugger under- the-counter stuff. In the service of what were clearly political ends, the Margo board's interpretations, their specialised knowledge, their clarity, were denigrated by two or three ostentatiously exploitative individuals; to include the offensive secret police colonel, Craig Williamson. That his and other miserably uninformed witness was adopted by the TRC in favour of Margo's in the case of these accidents is to the TRC's eternal discredit.

Margo's autobiography reads easily and particularly as a record of the development of the technical and legal assessment of air safety that has taken place in part of this last century, is of considerable value. As a direct consequence of the Helderberg investigation, the Boeing company stopped production of the "Combi" configuration of the jumbo jet. International airlines still follow the Margo board recommendations of precautionary measures to be taken with existing Combi aircraft.

Margo's style is muted and studiously avoids personal heroics. The book reveals much that has not been known before, and the charm of his writing almost matches that of the man himself. In his explanations of the Parkinson's disease which now, in his late years, afflicts him, he is completely without sentimentality.

As the subtitle of the book states, Margo's has been crowded life. It has also been a life of remarkable distinction and worth.

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