The 9th of August marked National Women’s day. It is the day that 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in 1956 to protest pass laws under the apartheid government. What better opportunity to commemorate other women who were part of the struggle including struggle heroine Nokuthula Simelane.
Nokuthula Simelane was a twenty-three year old university graduate with a promising future ahead of her. Instead she put her country’s freedom before her own ambition and acted as a courier for Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress, moving between Swaziland and South Africa. Nokuthula was abducted, tortured and forcibly disappeared by members of the Security Branch of the former South African Police in 1983.
Nokuthula was captured after being betrayed by a fellow comrade, who she was meant to meet at the Carlton Centre in Johannesburg on the morning of September 8 1983. Instead of meeting her comrade she arrived to find members of South Africa’s Security Police waiting for her. She was abducted that day and never seen again.
The Security Police drove her to the police barracks in Johannesburg where she was kept in a small secluded room, tortured and abused. Several days later she was moved to an isolated farm where the torture continued. Nokuthula was shackled, beaten beyond recognition, kept in unsanitary conditions and in solitary confinement. The Security Police tortured her for more than three weeks in a bid to break her spirit and turn her into an informant.
Nokuthula’s family have been unrelenting in their quest for answers and in 1996, a police docket was opened. Five years later, in 2001, the Amnesty Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) heard testimony from certain Security Branch Police who were granted amnesty for her abduction and torture, despite the that fact that the Amnesty Committee found that they had been dishonest about the brutal torture endured by Nokuthula. In addition to blatantly misleading the Commission, no one applied for amnesty for her murder.
In pursuit of truth and accountability for the murder and torture of Nokuthula, the Simelane family delved into a long process of correspondence and engagement with the post apartheid National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the South African Police Service including requesting that a judicial inquest into her death be held.
Despite repeated requests, correspondence and meetings with the authorities, little progress was made and no decision to either prosecute suspected perpetrators who did not apply for amnesty or hold an inquest was made by the NPA.
Having exhausted all options, on 20 May 2015, Thembi Nkadimeng, Nokuthula’s sister, filed an application before the Gauteng Division of the High Court seeking to compel the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) to make a decision in respect of the 32 year old disappearance of her sister.
The application also cites the National Police Commissioner, the Minister of Police, the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, and the suspected perpetrators Willem Helm Coetzee, Anton Pretorius, Frederick Barnard Mong, Timothy Radebe, and Willem Schoon.
Willem Helm Coetzee, Anton Pretorius and Frederick Barnard Mong, have indicated through their attorney that they will not oppose the court application. Whilst Radebe and Schoon are yet to file any papers before the Court. Radebe and Schoon are also the only two suspected perpetrators who never applied for amnesty before the TRC.
Apartheid era crimes and the lack of accountability continue to be issues that face the country today. This case highlights the fact that though the TRC process was crucial for a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy and equality, it was by no means perfect. Amnesty was granted even to those who did not fully disclose the truth, in direct contravention of the TRC’s own laws. This has left an accountability vacuum and many unanswered questions for the families of those who were murdered under the brutal apartheid regime. The lack of prosecutions thereafter, despite the TRC handing over a number of dockets to the NPA for further action, has added insult to injury.
Whilst the previous NDPPs have not been very elpful with regard to this case, there are indications that the recently appointed NDPP, Advocate Shaun Abrahams is willing to give this case the appropriate attention it deserves and to find an amicable solution that aligns with the principles enshrined in the Constitution of South Africa. Positive developments in this regard, include the fact that the NDPP and the Minister of Justice have finally agreed to set up an inquest before the High Court.
The NDPP has a responsibility in accordance with the terms of his office and, with regard to the spirit and purport of this vibrant constitutional democracy to do right by those who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of this nation. It remains to be seen how matters will unfold but what is clear is that the Simelane family are in great need of answers and closure.
Having recently celebrated National Women’s Day and taken the time to commemorate the great women who have shaped the nation, let the story of Nokuthula and others like it, remain in our hearts and minds.