Mudukuti vs the world's war criminals

When in Rome: Angela Mudukuti's fight for the victims of injustice pits her against powerful and intractable forces. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé)

When in Rome: Angela Mudukuti's fight for the victims of injustice pits her against powerful and intractable forces. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé)

By the age of 28, most millennials have finished university, settled for a job that they don’t really like and, according to research released by Pew Research in July, moved back in with their parents. 

Angela Mudukuti is more ambitious. 

At the age of 28, she has worked for the International Criminal Court (ICC), studied under the tutelage of the “godfather of the Rome Statute”, successfully sued the South African government for allowing a wanted war criminal to escape the country, and is taking on a precedent-setting court challenge seeking justice for a victim of apartheid’s Security Branch. 

She is an international criminal lawyer at the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC) and, recently, was the driving force behind the court challenge that saw the government interdicted from letting Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir leave the country. He is wanted by the ICC for several war crimes, including genocide. 

The litigation centre obtained an interim interdict, which should have prevented the government from allowing al-Bashir to leave. But he did, in spite of the court order, which earned the government a stern rebuke by a full Bench of the high court in Pretoria. The government is appealing the interdict. 

In the wake of the controversy, the ANC denounced the ICC and harshly criticised the judiciary. 

Mudukuti was at the centre of it all. “A lot of the criticism was constructive at the time, but a lot of it wasn’t.” 

She says there is much room for improvement at the ICC but many of those who criticised it don’t understand how the court functions.

“They don’t understand the court’s jurisdictional limits, don’t understand what the court can and cannot do. Classic questions like, ‘What about George Bush and what about Tony Blair?’ are the manifestation of someone who doesn’t understand how the system is supposed to work. What struck me is just how little people know about the court.” 

What added to the fury surrounding the al-Bashir case were “political perspectives and everything other than the rule of law, and the fact that 300 000 people have died since 2003 in Darfur because of Bashir and his state machinery”, she says. 

The litigation centre was accused of having a third-force agenda, which was aimed at embarrassing the government. 

But Mudukuti says the centre is one of several organisations worldwide that monitor al-Bashir’s movement. The ICC issued a warrant of arrest for him in 2009. 

As a signatory to the Rome Statute, South Africa signed into law the ICC Act in 2002, which binds the country to implement the statute. 

Mudukuti says the focus of the centre’s international justice programme is to ensure that states are aware of their international and domestic legal obligations.

“During 2009, when Bashir was invited to attend the inauguration of President Jacob Zuma, SALC wrote to government to remind them of their obligations. 

“And they told Bashir, you’re invited, but you’ll be arrested, and he didn’t come. 

“And, so when we found out that the African Union summit would be in South Africa, we did what we always do: we engaged with government. We wrote them letters.” 

When the letters were ignored,  Mudukuti and her team turned to the courts. 

“Cases like this are in the public interest, because it’s about the rule of law; it’s about justice for the victims; and it’s about South Africa maintaining its international and domestic law obligations.” 

As someone with direct experience of the ICC, Mudukuti says the attacks levelled against the litigation centre during this time were “intense”. 

“The negative detractors are not a lot in terms of number, but they are loud,” she says. 

But, being in the human rights field, she had always known that this was going to happen. 

“I have always known that I wanted to be a lawyer, and the thing I was certain about is that I always believed in law as a force for change. If you want to make a real difference, I believe that law is the way to do it.” 

International criminal law has a wider scope in terms of jurisdiction, and thus there is more potential for change, she says. 

Mudukuti grew up in a small Zimbabwean town called Ruwa, near Harare. The daughter of an insurance salesperson and entrepreneur, Mudukuti says her decision to enter law was probably influenced by what was going on in Zimbabwe. 

But she says she would probably have entered the field regardless of where she grew up. 

After school, Mudukuti left Zimbabwe to study law at the University of Pretoria, and later at the University of the Western Cape in conjunction with the Humboldt-Universität in Berlin. 

Then it was off to the ICC to complete her internship and later to join the office of the prosecutor. 

She later studied under Professor Cherif Bassiouni, the “godfather” of the Rome Statue, at the International Institute for Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences, where she worked on international cases that involved the likes of former Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. 

She says, although the ICC is the “pinnacle” of international criminal law, she realised that she needed more direct contact with victims, and more experience in building a case from scratch. And so she joined the litigation centre in 2013. 

“What keeps me going is that there are victims of these crimes. That’s why we do this. There are people who have suffered at his [al-Bashir’s] hands and there’s been no justice and accountability.”

Mudukuti says her team received letters and emails from Darfur refugees in all parts of the world. 

“They said things like, ‘Wow, thank you so much; this is the first time we had hope that someone was going to catch him’. That was incredible. 

“Even though there wasn’t justice, just the prospect of that happening, and the fact that Bashir had to escape like a thief in the night, that was something for them,” she says. 

She is also deeply involved in the Zimbabwe torture case. In October 2013, the Constitutional Court unanimously held that the South African police have a duty to investigate claims of torture that took place in Zimbabwe in 2007. 

But it is an impending court challenge that will test one of the country’s sorest points: pursuing justice for apartheid victims. 

Nokuthula Simelane disappeared in 1983. She was abducted and tortured, and her remains were never found. Despite the fact that the Security Branch officers who were responsible for her murder did not apply for amnesty for that crime at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), they were never prosecuted. 

The centre is taking the government to court to try to force it to hold an inquest into Simelane’s death. If it is successful, thousands more families who want to turn to the courts for justice will have legal precedent on their side. 

Mudukuti says that, when she heard about the case, she knew she had to be involved. 

The Constitution as well as legislation binds the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to hold inquests into deaths that occur under suspicious circumstances, she says. 

“At the moment, this is our only case like this. But the point of every case we take at SALC is of strategic value, to set the right precedent. So if we can get the right precedent set here then other families might have a chance,” she says.

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics.  Read more from Sarah Evans