Today in Transportation History – 1952: A New Airport Opens in South Africa

Jan Smuts International Airport began operations in the city of Kempton Park, 20 miles northeast of Johannesburg, in what was then the Union of South Africa. (The Republic of South Africa came into existence nine years later.) The South African Airways’ Skymaster plane named Tafelberg was the first aircraft to touch down at the new airport. Those on board for this first-of-a-kind landing included Paul Sauer, the Minister of Transport, and 42 other passengers. About a year-and-a-half after the facility went into service, it made history as the first airport outside the United Kingdom to provide commercial jet airliner flights.

Jan Smuts International Airport owed its original name to a longtime prime minister of the Union of South Africa. While initially advocating racial segregation and opposing the enfranchisement of black Africans, Smuts ultimately moderated his views and lost his 1948 reelection bid to hard-line Afrikaners pushing for the system of racial discrimination known as apartheid. Smuts died in 1950.

In 1994 – about three years after apartheid was abolished – the Republic of South Africa’s newly reconstituted government established a new policy of not naming airports after politicians. Jan Smuts International Airport was therefore renamed Johannesburg International Airport. The policy was eventually reversed, however, and in 2006 the facility was renamed O.R. Tambo International Airport in honor of a one-time African National Congress president and staunch apartheid opponent.

In 1996, the facility replaced Cairo International Airport as the busiest airport in all of Africa. O.R. Tambo International Airport also has the distinction of being one of the few airports in the world to offer direct, non-stop flights to six continents.

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