June 1, 2002. The AirQuarius cargo flight crashed on Cradock Peak in the Outeniqua mountain range, ending the tumultuous life of tainted South African captain Hansie Cronje. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the fateful day that turned out to be the last of an almost noble life.
1st June, 2002
Two years earlier, Hansie Cronje had confessed to taking money from bookmakers to provide information and fix matches. He had departed from the cricket scene head bent in shame, the glossy reputation, which had proudly withstood the initial barrage of allegations, tattered and tarnished by murky revelations.
When the accusations had first been voiced, Ali Bacher, Managing Director of United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA), had solidly stood behind the national captain, vouching for his unquestionable integrity and honesty. Four days later the good doctor was woken up by a call at 3.00 am to hear Cronje’s admission of guilt, disclosure that he had not been totally honest.
In front of King’s Commission, Cronje had admitted ‘an unfortunate love of money’. The latter discovery of at least 72 bank accounts in the Cayman Islands in his name suggests that only the tip of the iceberg of greed had been glimpsed. Cronje told the commission he had accepted at least $130,000 from illegal bookmakers between 1996 and 2000, as well as the famed leather jacket, a present from the charismatic bookie Marlon Aronstam.
He had sat there, haggard, eyes sunk into troubled craters, almost an emaciated version of the erstwhile proud leader of men, as his lawyers had futilely tried to defend him against the evidence submitted to Judge Erwin King.
Perhaps in the intervening couple of years, Cronje had come to terms with his disgrace. Perhaps he was rebuilding his life. Perhaps he would never have regained the sparkling smile which he flashed during South Africa’s first Test after the apartheid era. But, he was painstakingly working his way back towards it.
However, in the early hours of June 1, 2002, his second innings was cut brutally short by a fatal flight of fate.
Attempts at a second coming
After the ban, Cronje had slowly worked his way to regaining confidence. The same love of money was being channelled into the corporate world. The hard work and dedication, along with leadership skills – qualities that had taken him to the pinnacle of South African cricket and established him as the most successful skipper of the country’s interrupted history of the game – had propelled him to pursue and complete a masters degree in business leadership. He has taken up a job with Bell Equipment, and was, by all indications, dedicated to his new vocation.
“At the interview for the job, Hansie was sitting there like the little boy who got a hell of a hiding but didn’t deserve the extra couple of smacks,” recalls Bokkie Kotze, Cronje’s former boss at Bell. “But when he saw the acceptance he got here from everyone he started to get his confidence back. You could see the sparkle in his eye and the whiteness of the teeth in his smile. I got up to 10 calls a day from the public congratulating our company for giving a man such as Hansie a second chance in life.”
Cronje did some excellent work. A series of publicity engagements he had managed earned a lot of praise. Some corporate social responsibility events were also arranged in which he spoke – and spoke well, raising R100000 for handicapped children.
Something that worked for him in his corporate life was an innate quality of parsimony. He would seldom, if ever, buy drinks for anyone. And every method of making or saving money appealed to him.
One such was his arrangement with AirQuarius, who had agreed to fly him for free as a sole passenger in their cargo planes for the 1500 mile round trip from his workplace in Johannesburg to his home on Fancourt estate, a luxury golf resort at George in the Western Cape. Wife Bertha was used to wait for him on the Friday evenings, looking forward to their weekend together. In return, the pilots of AirQuarius could stay in one of the guest rooms.
Running late on that fateful evening, delayed by traffic and his detour to the Bell Equipment offices, Cronje missed his scheduled flight from Johannesburg and called AirQuarius.
The Hawker Siddley 748 cargo aircraft crashed into the Cradock Peak after losing its way in the hostile Cape weather. The two pilots in the plane, who lost visibility in the storm clouds, died with him. Cronje was largely unmarked and still strapped into his seat when rescue teams found the wreckage scattered across the frozen mountainside. An eventful life that had soared to untold fame and plummeted into the depths of notoriety went through a brief metaphorical replay in the physical world, as it came to a premature end after 32 tempestuous years.
It was concluded after investigations that the death was due to an act or omission prima facie amounting to an offence on the part of pilots. However, some people, notably Clive Rice, continue to voice suspicion about foul play.
Memories about the man also remain mixed.
Some, like sports scientist Tim Noakes who worked closely with the team under Cronje, brand him as intimidating and afflicted with antisocial personality disorder. Teammates like Herschelle Gibbshave suffered because of him, while Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher and Lance Klusener have revealed that they had been approached by the captain with hints of compromising performance. Even Nelson Mandela had publicly chastised him.
Yet, for many of his countrymen, he remains a great captain who had lost his way. His picture continues to hang in the Bell boardroom with the caption Our Hero. His 27-11 win-loss record as skipper continues to rank among the all-time best. His 3714 runs in Tests were not spectacular, but his reputation as one of the best players of spin bowling lives on.
At his funeral, held at his old school Grey College in Bloemfontein, Pastor Dave Hooper summed it up saying, “All our hearts are aching.”