South Africa’s apartheid skeltons are coming out of the closet

Published 19th October 2017

On 12 October, a High Court judge found that anti-apartheid stalwart Ahmed Timol was in fact murdered and did not, as alleged by the Security Branch police, commit suicide by jumping from the 10th floor of the John Vorster Square Police Station. It has been an arduous journey for the Timol family in their quest for truth. Finally, they have been vindicated. This is an important outcome as it raises vital questions about the unfinished business of the apartheid era. It also exposes the current government’s failure to provide justice for many families who lost loved ones during the struggle against apartheid.

Timol was a school teacher who opposed the brutality of the apartheid regime. Branded as a “terrorist” he was arrested in October 1971 and died in detention four days later.

After the then attorney general declined to prosecute, an inquest into Timol’s death was held in1972. The inquest served to merely rubber stamp his death and provided a way for the Security Branch to cover their murderous tracks. Timol’s nephew, Imtiaz Cajee started researching his uncle’s death and as anyone would- he wanted the truth. Cajee, whom I had the pleasure of meeting once, was determined to find answers. With the help of Foundation on Human Rights, Advocate Howard Varney, and expert investigator Frank Dutton, all of whom I have had the pleasure and honour of working with- the inquest was reopened on July 26, 2017.

According to the South African History Online, 73 anti-apartheid activists died in detention between 1963 and 1990 yet no one has been held accountable. In Timol’s case, out of the thirty or so members of the Security Branch who participated in his arrest, and the investigation of his death, only three were found alive. The longer these cases are delayed, the slimmer the chances of justice, truth and closure. Had the NPA acted in 2003 when they were originally approached by Cajee, Hans Gloy, one of Timol’s lead interrogators (he was also with Timol moments before his death), and several others who were involved would have been alive. Gloy died in 2012. Timol described the NPA’s approach as “cavalier and uncaring.”

The Timol case is one of many examples where families were left with no answers. The National Prosecuting Authority’s Priority Crimes Litigation Unit has been crippled by misplaced political considerations and has failed to prosecute and investigate many suspected apartheid era perpetrators who continue to enjoy impunity and undeserved freedom. The NPA stated mission is to “ensure justice for the victims of crime by prosecuting without fear, favour and prejudice and …to solve and prevent crime.” Yet thus far, their conduct in this regard has been found wanting. Where they have finally seen fit to fulfil their mandate it has taken years of legal wrangling to elicit action.

The case of Nokuthula Simelane, a young anti-apartheid heroine who was abducted, tortured and disappeared in 1983, is another example of the NPA’s failure to act timeously. Having personally worked on this case I recall the reluctance and the unconscionable delay in the handling of the Simelane matter by the NPA. Only after years of excuses, the disappearance of the case file, and the filling of legal papers challenging the NPA’s failure to prosecute, did they finally agree to prosecute Nokuthula’s suspected murders.

The legal papers that finally spurred the NPA into action include publicly available affidavits from former prosecutor Vusi Pikoli, who was suspended after pursuing apartheid era crimes. He vividly recalls the heavy handed political interference that prevented him from pursuing apartheid crimes. Why would the ANC prevent the prosecution of former Security Branch police? Could it be that the ANC runs the risk of having their own criminal apartheid era secrets exposed if they allow prosecutors to dig into the dark past?

After waiting for over 33 years for justice, Nokuthula’s family is still waiting as the case has stalled due issues pertaining to the legal fees of the accused. The accused are of the opinion that the Police Commissioner should pay their legal fees and unsurprisingly, the Commissioner’s legal team disagrees.

Whilst the NPA seem to have been more cooperative in the Timol matter, they have not shown the same enthusiasm for other cases. The failure to adequately deal with the apartheid era crimes will continue to haunt the nation. Timol would be 70 years old this year, instead he died at the young age of 29 and only in 2017 has the truth about his brutal murder and torture been uncovered. The powers that be cannot be allowed to continue to ignore their legal duties and obligations. This state of impunity will only serve to destroy the fabric of rule of law and make a mockery of those who fully disclosed their crimes before the TRC.
** This article appeared in the Star Newspaper on 19 October 2017

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