Thirty-two years after her disappearance, Thembi Nkadimeng this week filed an application in the high court in Pretoria, in an attempt to force the National Director of Public Prosecutions and the Minister of Justice to open an inquest into the death of her sister, Nokuthula Simelane.
Nkadimeng is now mayor of Polokwane.
Records from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) show that Simelane, a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, was extensively tortured on a farm in the North West during 1983. She was never seen again. One of her torturers, former Special Branch operative Willem Coetzee, told the TRC that he believed she was killed by her fellow comrades upon her return to Swaziland after being detained for five weeks.
Coetzee said Simelane was “brainwashed” and that she turned after the first week of her torture, and agreed to spy for the Special Branch. But news reports from the time, and accounts from former members of Coetzee’s team, have alleged that Simelane was shot and killed by the police.
According to the Southern African Litigation Centre – which is assisting Nkadimeng – a police docket was opened in 1996.
“In 2001 the Amnesty Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission granted some of the perpetrators amnesty for Nokuthula’s abduction, including certain police officers who the committee found had lied about the brutal torture. This was notwithstanding the full disclosure requirement laid down in the TRC law. None of the perpetrators applied for amnesty for her murder,” according to the centre.
The family has now turned to the courts because repeated requests to launch an inquest into Simelane’s death went unanswered.
“Neither has a decision been made whether to prosecute the perpetrators who did not apply for amnesty for murder or kidnapping,” Nkadimeng’s lawyers say.
During 1983, Coetzee told the TRC, his unit had learnt that Simelane, of “Sbongile”, was on her way to South Africa. The unit met on the rooftop of a Norwood block of flats, and discussed their options. Either they would arrest Simelane and prosecute her, or they would “exercise an immediate brainwashing action” with a view to turning her into an informant. The latter option was chosen. The reasoning was that, should Simelane be prosecuted, the police’s informants in MK cells would probably have to be named in court. But the police also knew, according to Coetzee, that there was no legal way to abduct Simelane, “and consequently all actions in that regard were illegitimate”.
‘I slapped her around a few times’
Simelane was abducted from a parking lot in Carletonville outside a restaurant. Officers were hiding near the restaurant and also in the basement of the restaurant. Simelane was lured there by the police’s informant, an agent known as Strongman. Three police officers, including Coetzee, tackled Simelane to the ground, put her into the boot of a car, and took her to a secret police “operational office” on the roof, on top of the 10th floor of the block of flats. En route, she was moved to the back seat of a car.
“I slapped her around a few times,” Coetzee told the TRC. The interrogation began. It was a Saturday. Coetzee met with a Brigadier Muller to get the go-ahead to start the “brainwashing” process. Muller needed permission from “Security Head Office”.
The TRC heard that it was customary for officers to be given indemnity when brainwashing occurred. The following Monday, Simelane was taken to a farm in the North West. Coetzee, a Superintendent Pretorius, a Warrant Officer Mong, and “certain black members” undertook the interrogation; sometimes individually, sometimes all at once. Strongman was also present. During the first week, “the turning of Simelane was accompanied by assaults”, Coetzee said. She was waterboarded, a method now made famous by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), accused of torturing its detainees.
Coetzee described this as “to suffocate her by means of using a wet bag, which was common in the correctional facilities”. Simelane was slapped and punched. After that, Coetzee denied that any other means of assault happened in his presence. The interrogation was stopped after a week because “we had already succeeded in recruiting her”.
Two other officers involved in Simelane’s torture testified that she was electrocuted and thrown into a dam. But Coetzee denied any knowledge of this. At night Simelane would be cuffed to the bed. Coetzee says Simelane broke, and gave the police information about MK structures in Swaziland and South Africa, leading to the arrest of 18 operatives.
Simelane was detained for another four weeks after her torture had been stopped. In Coetzee’s version, she was sent back to Swaziland to spy on her comrades in the back of a windowless van. But this is contradicted by other accounts, which alleged that Coetzee personally put Simelane in the boot of a car, and that he showed her to someone near Potchefstroom. Coetzee denied this. He said Simelane was taken to the Swazi border post and instructed to climb through the fence.
He claimed that the police never heard from her again. “What I did, I did in order to protect the government and the interests of the National Party and to combat the revolutionary onslaught,” he said.
The Khulumani Support Group and the South African Coalition for Transitional Justice have come out in support of the case. In a joint statement, the two organisations said, “This is despite the TRC handing over approximately 500 missing person cases and 300 other cases for possible prosecution to the NPA, following the completion of the Amnesty Committee’s work. The delays in prosecutions deny victims an important form of reparation – accountability.”