Families haunted by the lies apartheid inquests told
In the debate about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela following her recent death, the question of apartheid-era prosecutions once again reared its head.
When two bodies were found by the Missing Persons Task Team in 2013 and identified three years later as those of Lolo Sono and Sibuniso Tshabalala, there was speculation that the Mother of the Nation may be called to answer the questions she did not answer to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's satisfaction in 1997. The two activists, working as ANC couriers, were last seen at her house in Soweto in 1988. Five years later their bodies were exhumed from a pauper's grave in Soweto's Avalon Cemetery.
The TRC had rejected the testimony of her former bodyguard, police informer Jerry Richardson, that he been ordered by Madikizela-Mandela to kill the two young men. No further prosecution has arisen since the families reburied the bodies of Sono and Tshabalala in 2016.Regardless of what Madikizela-Mandela knew or did not know about Sono and Tshabalala's deaths, the families of activists who went missing or were murdered during the dark days of apartheid continue to be haunted by unanswered questions.
Last year the official finding in the death of activist Ahmed Timol was overturned. In 1972 the state had found he committed suicide by jumping to his death from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg. In last year's landmark verdict, Judge Billy Mothle at the High Court in Pretoria found that Timol was in fact pushed to his death by apartheid security branch officers.
After last year's verdict, many families hoped a door had been opened for them to find answers and obtain the justice denied to them by the apartheid regime - although even Mothle's recommendation that three security policemen who testified during the Timol inquest be prosecuted for perjury has shown little progress by the NPA.
Some of the families now reported to be seeking justice include those of Cape Town activist Ashley Kriel, who was killed in 1987. Security branch member and notorious torturer Jeffrey Benzien received amnesty for his role in Kriel's death from the TRC, but Kriel's family do not believe that he made a full disclosure and have called for a new inquest.The family of former ANC president Chief Albert Luthuli, who died after being hit by a train near his Groutville home in KwaZulu-Natal in 1967, have also approached the NPA for a reinvestigation of the circumstances surrounding his death. There are reported to be investigations under way into the deaths of Dr Hoosen Haffajee, who was found hanged in his cell at Brighton Beach police station in Durban in 1977, and Suliman "Babla" Saloojee, who fell to his death from the security branch's headquarters at Grays Building in Johannesburg in 1964.
The family of Dr Neil Aggett, who was found hanged in his cell at John Vorster Square on February 5 1982, have also approached the NPA for a reopening of the inquest into his death. One of Aggett's chief interrogators, Stephan Whitehead - who did not apply for amnesty to the TRC - is still alive.In the case of the reopening of the inquest into the death of activist Nokuthula Simelane, which was scheduled to be heard in 2015, a side case regarding the refusal of the police to pay for the defence of the security branch members implicated must first be resolved before the inquest can get under way. Simelane "disappeared" in 1983 while on an ANC mission to South Africa from Swaziland.
These are not just names on the list of the TRC's 19,000 recognised victims of gross human rights violations. They represent decades of anguish and pain for families. Families such as those of Matthews Mojo Mabelane, who fell to his death from the window of a 10th-floor office at John Vorster Square on the morning of February 15 1977. Their journey towards closure and justice has been a painful one of stops and starts over four decades.
Mabelane's cousin Sammy says Mabelane's 96-year-old father, Philip, recently told him he hoped he could find out the truth before he died. "When your child dies and you don't know how they died but you've seen pictures of their dead body, I can't imagine you ever forget that," said Sammy.
Hopefully Philip Mabelane will live long enough to see the official version of his son's death overturned, helping the family towards closure and justice - but also, as Sammy said, "to have the record rectified ... and to tell the true story of how we got to where we are to the rest of the world"...