Sunday August 3, 2003
Was Hansie Cronje murdered?
Since his death a year ago, the tainted star of South African cricket has become an icon in a country that refuses to accept his faults. But as revelations of secret bank accounts, shady contacts and habitual match-fixing grow, a further, unpalatable theory is emerging: that his plane crash was no accident. Daniel Murt reports from South Africa
On what would become the last afternoon of his life, Hansie Cronje was returning late from a business meeting in Swaziland when he became caught up in traffic in the eastern suburbs of Johannesburg.
It was Friday evening, the last day of May 2002, and he was on the way to the airport for a scheduled flight back to his home on Fancourt estate, a luxury golf resort at George in the Western Cape.
A necessary detour to the offices of Bell Equipment, an international company specialising in the construction of earth-moving machinery, delayed him further.
Cronje had worked there as an account manager for less than a year since being banned from any involvement with world cricket following the match-fixing scandal that may yet return to destabilise the sport.
'When he missed the flight, it was cold and hailing in Jo'burg,' recalls his former secretary at Bell, Pam Jooste. 'It was late in the afternoon; most of the staff had gone home. It was freezing cold outside and Hansie asked whether anyone wanted coffee. He seemed anxious, a little uneasy.'
Ever alert to alternatives, especially those that would save or make him money, Cronje had a standing arrangement with the small charter airline AirQuarius which would allow him to travel as sole passenger on one of its cargo planes.
It would be the last time the pilots would happily agree to the former South African cricket captain using their jump seat.
Though Bell were prepared to pay for a flight every weekend so that he could make the 1,500-mile round trip home to be with his wife, Bertha, Cronje preferred to fly for free with AirQuarius.
In return, their pilots lodged overnight in a wing of his home.
'Our crew stayed at his house - we rented it from him,' says the airline's chief executive Gavin Branson. 'The pilots used to play golf with Hansie at Fancourt. Hansie didn't pay to fly with us - that route was not a revenue-paying one for us as far as passengers were concerned.'
The plane crash that ended Cronje's life after 32 eventful years happened in the charcoal hours of an otherwise ordinary Saturday morning, but news of it first reached South Africa's streets at lunchtime on 1 June 2002. By then Hansie's brother, Frans Cronje, and his wife, Rene, were on their way to George to be with his widow Bertha.
George is a backwater 430km east of Cape Town. It labours under the dishonour of being chosen by P.W. Botha, apartheid's penultimate kommandant, as a suitable place to ebb away the remainder of his uncelebrated days.
The Hawker Siddley 748 cargo aircraft in which Cronje was travelling had crashed into a mountain known locally as Cradock Peak after losing its way in the hostile Cape weather. Two pilots died alongside Cronje, who was largely unmarked and still strapped into his seat when rescue teams found the wreckage scattered across the frozen mountainside.
Bertha Cronje had been at George airport since the night before, her impending widowhood becoming more certain with each passing hour. Thus was it ended, the life of a man who found greatness, sold it for many fistfuls of dollars and a leather jacket, and thought a few manipulative words (and a slew of lawyers) could buy it back.
In truth, Cronje had little to worry about. He was a white, male Afrikaner from the heartland of the volk, the Free State. The foundations of his privileged life had been laid centuries before, and the mortar that bound them was denial. And as denial shaped his life, so it embalmed him in death. Even today, the millions whose standard he bore refuse to accept the truth of his corruption; to them, he remains a great man who 'made a mistake'.
They have no need to forgive him because, as they see it, he did no wrong. Only a few South Africans are prepared to dissent publicly. Tim Noakes, a sports scientist who worked with the South African cricket team, says: 'People were scared of him. Even today players who had their career fatally affected by Cronje are afraid to say anything because they can still be harmed further.'
Does Cronje's malign influence extend beyond the grave? Or could it be that his death was not an accident?
Born Wessel Johannes Cronje in Bloemfontein on 25 September 1969, Cronje made his Test debut for South Africa against the West Indies in March 1992, in the country's first five-day game following its readmission into the International Cricket Board.
An accomplished if never spectacular batsman, he scored only five and two in their 52-run defeat, but was seen as a young star in the re-emergence of South African cricket.
At the age of 24, he captained his country against Australia in the absence of regular skipper Kepler Wessels, and within a year had been given the job permanently.
His record of 27 victories in 53 Tests makes him South Africa's most successful captain, and the fourth highest ranked captain in Test history.
When he left the field in his final Test against India in 2000, he had made six centuries, scored 3,714 runs at an average of 36.41,and was thought to be one of the world's finest players of spin bowling.
The funeral, which sealed Cronje into cultural martyrdom, was held at his old school, Grey College in Bloemfontein, a crucible for notions of grand Afrikanerdom. The day marked the beginning of the cult of Hansie Cronje. His image has since been morphed with Korda's celebrated photograph of Che Guevara, and emblazoned on a million and more T-shirts. A businessman, Leon Dorfling, is funding a memorial to the fallen idol, to be built partly from the wreckage of the plane in which he died. More generally, Arikaners see the rise and fall of Cronje as a metaphor for their own lost supremacy.
Even in absence, Cronje was the commanding presence of the recent cricket World Cup in South Africa: with the hosts eliminated after the first round, former teammates spoke of their dissatisfaction with the then captain Shaun Pollock and of how the outcome would have been different if only Cronje had been alive to lead and inspire them.
Sightings of Cronje alive and well have, mercifully, not been reported so far, although there are many who believe that possibility exists.
There are others who are convinced that he was murdered. Gavin Branson, for one, remains troubled by the plane crash.
'There are a lot of unknowns about what happened. I think it will be a long time before the [Civil Aviation Authority] report comes out. I have a million questions that I haven't even started asking yet. We'd been flying that route daily and in far worse weather without experiencing even a hint of trouble.'
CAA reports routinely take a long time to complete, but this one may take longer than most, particularly if there is evidence to support the whisperings that George airport's ground landing system - which failed - had been tampered with. There were enough people, with enough money, in the underworld of illegal betting to have instigated a sabotage plan for fear of the real truth about Cronje ever emerging. And there were also many people who knew about Cronje's arrangement with AirQuarius. Was Cronje murdered? Many senior police officers believe he may have been - and they are working covertly to prove it.
'A lot of people wanted Cronje dead,' says one investigator close to the case. 'They feared that he would one day tell the full truth, and then many more would be implicated. I know people who have looked closely into what happened but who were warned off by threatening phone calls. They're scared of getting a bullet in the head. I understand that police have found evidence of sabotage, but they're reluctant to go public on this. The full cost of a follow-up investigation would be too great in a country that is already riven by crime. It suits the police to have a closed case.'
The irony of Cronje's death was that it occurred as he was beginning to rebuild his life. The shell of a man who had sat before the King Commission of Inquiry a year earlier, shorn of the muscle which marked him as an athlete, his intense, brooding eyes sunk deep into his skull, had begun to regain something of his former arrogant confidence.
He had been warmly applauded at an orchestrated series of public engagements and the publicity generated by these events - together with a tour of England organised by Max Clifford - had been cleverly managed by promoter Derek Macaskill.
'When he was trying to put his life back on track he needed to get back into the corporate world,' Macaskill says. 'We organised two functions at which he would speak. We raised R100,000 [£8,000] for a school for handicapped children in George.'
Cronje confessed before the commission to what he called 'an unfortunate love of money', and the full extent of this love may never be known, although recent revelations of the 72 bank accounts in the Cayman Islands held in his name would suggest, at the very least, that only a small part of the story has been told.
Cronje told the commission he had accepted at least $130,000 from illegal bookmakers and other undesirables on the edges of the game between 1996 and 2000. As well as the cash, there was also a leather jacket, a present from the colourful bookie Marlon Aronstam.
As a result of evidence presented to Judge Edwin King, former team-mates Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Williams received six-month bans. Both admitted to conspiring with Cronje to underperform in one-day internationals in India in March 2000, even if, in the event, neither had followed through on the deals.
Cronje now sought to 'legitimise' his monetary interests, taking a masters degree in business leadership and finding himself a job, as a financial manager at Bell Equipment. His days as an international sportsman may have been over, but his competitive instincts remained, except now they were transferred to golf.
Full article (It's very long): http://observer.guardian.co.uk/osm/s...009957,00.html
Something about this seemed dodgy to me at the time, although I thought he faked his death. I guess the stories and rumours will start now