Nokuthula Simelane, a student and ANC courier, vanished after being abducted and tortured by police during apartheid regime.
Four former members of apartheid-era security forces are due to appear in court in South Africa charged with the 1983 murder of a young woman who was a courier for the then-banned African National Congress (ANC).
The trial has come following years of pressure from relatives of Nokuthula Simelane, a 23-year-old university student who disappeared after being abducted and tortured by specialist police under the apartheid regime. Her body has never been found.
The prosecution is the first of its kind for nearly a decade and comes against a background of heightened racial tensions in the country, and unease among many younger South Africans about how older generations have dealt with the traumatic history.
Ongoing poverty and inequality have sparked angry student protests over the past year, with one university campus shut indefinitely after being torched by demonstrators.
Lawyers say authorities in South Africa were reluctant to bring the prosecution against those accused of murdering Simelane out of fear that members of the ANC, the main anti-apartheid movement that became South Africa’s ruling party, might also find themselves in the dock.
“Thirty-three years have already passed so it’s in everyone’s interests that [the prosecution] goes ahead … But we will see what happens,” said Angela Mudukuti, international criminal justice lawyer at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), which brought a case to force authorities to bring Silemane’s alleged killer to trial.
The last major prosecution for apartheid-era crimes was that of Adriaan Vlok, a former minister who was given a 10-year prison suspended sentence for attempted murder after striking a plea bargain in 2007.
After apartheid ended in 1994, South Africa set up a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) to investigate past atrocities and grant amnesty to some accused perpetrators of politically motivated crimes. Supporters said the process was essential to allow South Africans to move on after decades of violence.
However amnesty was frequently denied for incomplete disclosure, and many crimes described to the TRC were forwarded to state authorities for investigation and prosecution. Few were actively investigated subsequently.
Luvuyo Mfaku, a prosecution spokesman, said earlier this month that three of the four suspects in Simelane’s death had applied for amnesty for her kidnapping, but not for her murder.
The fourth suspect will be charged with both kidnapping and murder, he said.
Simelane was an “underground operative” for uMkhonto weSizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), the armed wing of the ANC, and tasked with carrying messages between Swaziland and South Africa.
In 1983 she was first illegally held for a week at a police barracks in Johannesburg by officers from the intelligence unit of the Soweto Special Branch, where she was beaten, slapped and suffocated. She was then moved to a remote farm where she was tortured for more than a month, according to earlier testimony from the accused.
More than 20 years later, the trial of those accused of murdering her, in a court in Pretoria, is being closely watched.
The legacy of the TRC remains controversial. Some South Africans believe more former white officials should have been prosecuted for apartheid-era crimes. The most high-profile figure to be convicted was Eugene de Kock, head of an apartheid covert unit responsible for multiple killings. He was granted parole last year.
Retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was the chairman of the truth and reconciliation commission, recently defended the panel’s work, pointing out that it was the state that later failed “to hold to account those who didn’t receive amnesty”.
Tutu welcomed the decision to bring charges for Simelane’s murder, telling reporters he hoped it marked a turning point for the prosecuting authority, which he said has only pursued “less than a handful” of more than 300 apartheid-era cases his commission recommended for legal action in 2002.
The commission heard and finalised Simelane’s case in 2001, and handed it over to prosecutors the following year.
“What has taken them so long?” Tutu asked. “Why did the authorities turn their backs on the family of Nokuthula, and so many other families, for so many years? Why did the pleas of her family fall on deaf ears for decades?”
In an affidavit filed in the case brought to force authorities to prosecute Simelane’s alleged killers, Vusi Pikoli, a former national director of public prosecutions, claimed his attempts to prosecute those who did not apply for, or did not get, amnesty were blocked by senior figures within the ANC.
Tutu accused the ANC government of taking “extraordinary steps to obstruct the course of justice”.
Chris Vandome, a researcher at London’s Chatham House, said the prosecution could “open up a particularly nasty can of worms”.
“There are some within South Africa who view the TRC as neither getting at the full truth nor bringing full reconciliation, which is why cases like this one put people’s backs up. There is an argument that a deep-rooted healing process still needs to happen,” Vandome said.
In their testimony to the commission 16 years ago, three of the four defendants in the new trial admitted abducting Simelane and subjecting her to repeated severe beatings.
But they insisted they had not killed her and had released her after convincing the young activist to work for them as an informant. They suggested that her former comrades in the ANC might have murdered her themselves, suspecting treachery.
Lawyers who have pressed for the prosecution and family members have rejected the claims.
Mudukuti, the SALC lawyer, said “any number of cases may not have come before the TRC” and should be brought to the attention of prosecutors.
The TRC also left crucial questions about apartheid-era atrocities largely unanswered, such as what did the country’s political leaders know about the assassinations, bombings and other crimes.
Nelson Mandela famously declared “what is past, is past” on becoming the first black president of South Africa in 1994.
But young South Africans are increasingly questioning the attitude of older generations of political leaders to the recent past of their country.
Campaigners claim that the troubled history of the country has been deliberately obscured or ignored in text books and university courses. Others point to the unhealed scars left by apartheid-era atrocities.
Ernestina Simelane, the dead woman’s mother, told the Times, a local newspaper, that she was “going to court to get answers”.
“I want answers before they die, before they go to their graves with their horrible secrets. I go to bed and dream … of Nokuthula calling me for help … if only someone can say something, just tell me where she’s buried. These men must tell me so I can die peacefully.”