It was first established as an airline in March 1969 by Safmarine and started operations on 18 March 1970. Its primary client in the 1980s was the South African Defence Force. Until the 1990s it mainly served the local and regional air cargo market. In 1991 it diversified into aircraft maintenance and overnight courier operations before concentrating on leasing and chartering. In 1998 it purchased a 49% stake in Air Contractors, based in Ireland, and was itself acquired by Imperial Holdings for $40 million in December 1998. In July 1999 Safair acquired control of National Airways Corporation and Streamline Aviation (a charter and aircraft sales company). It is wholly owned by ASL Aviation Group Ltd based in Dublin, Ireland, a subsidiary of the Belgian group Compagnie Maritime Belge
In 2013, Safair created a low-cost carrier subsidiary called FlySafair. The initial plan to operate flights in October 2013 had to be cancelled, as a result of a high-court application by Comair. FlySafair plans to launch flights in October 2014.