The Simelane family knew their daughter’s choices made for freedom led to her death, but they still needed to know where the apartheid-era police killed and buried her.
The deep sense of loss and the lack of finality from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) propelled the family for more than two decades to find the truth in the hope that, one day, they could lay to rest the remains of Nokuthula Simelane.
Then this week the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) announced it would be prosecuting four of the eight police officers who were allegedly involved in Simelane’s kidnapping, torture and murder.
This comes more than three decades after she disappeared. The family knew that when she went missing in the early 1980s, with the security apparatus the likely suspects, the apartheid police force would not investigate their own. So when the ANC government came into power their hopes were revived.
The family could never have prepared themselves for the distress that would follow as they fought for justice for their daughter and sister.
Since Simelane disappeared the family has spared no effort in searching for her remains, starting with reporting her missing at the Swaziland and South African border and with the police in both countries.
In 1997 Simelane’s father testified before the TRC, pleading for the perpetrators to tell the truth about his daughter. He died in 2001, no closer to the truth.
“For more than 30 years I have had a mother weeping for her daughter. She knows she had two daughters but has never had the closure of knowing what happened to her eldest,” said Thembi Nkadimeng, sister to Nokuthula.
When Simelane disappeared she was 26, just about to graduate from the University of Swaziland, a member of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) and a courier for one of its units.
From the TRC hearings and other court applications a picture emerges of what happened to Simelane in the weeks before her death.
In September 1983 she met a source in the basement of the Carlton Centre, Johannesburg. It was a trap set by the Security Branch. The MK combatant’s five weeks of hell began. She was put in the boot of a police car, driven to Custodum Flats in Norwood, Johannesburg, where she was interrogated and tortured.
From there she was moved to a farm in Northam, in what is now North West, where she was kept for more than a month.
According to witness statements, by the time Simelane left the farm she could not walk. During the torture her hands and feet were cuffed. Her sleep was kept to a minimum. She was kicked and slapped and a bag was pulled over her head. She suffered electric shocks and was thrown into a zinc reservoir. The last time Simelane was seen she was cuffed in the boot of a vehicle.
It’s alleged that two officers shot her, burying her near Rustenburg.
The family’s fight for justice began in 1996 when a docket was finally opened and the murder investigated by the NPA’s Priority Crimes Investigations Unit. But a year later the investigation was put on hold pending the TRC process.
Eight officers applied for amnesty for the abduction and torture of Simelane. The TRC committee declined to grant amnesty for torture to officers Willem Coetzee, Anton Pretorius and Frederick Mongo, because they failed to make full disclosure.
“They orchestrated their testimony in an attempt to minimise their roles in the torture of Ms Simelane … We conclude that the evidence of Coetzee, Pretorius and Mong is untruthful insofar as it concerns the duration and extent of Ms Simelane’s torture while she was in the custody of the Security Police, especially at the farm,” reads a transcript from the TRC proceedings.
Despite all the testimony, witness statements and evidence from the TRC the family could still not secure a finalisation to the investigation, let alone a conviction.
A statue of the MK cadre stands in Bethal. (Troy Enekvist)
Nkadimeng said this week that she has mixed feelings about the prosecution because her family has spent years begging and fighting the NPA to finalise the case.
“All we wanted was closure where we can say we know what happened to Nokuthula. She also deserves a dignified send-off [and a place] where we can say she was born, lived and died,” said Nkadimeng.
Since 2001, when the officers were refused amnesty, the family made numerous attempts to get the NPA to launch an investigation and criminal proceedings.
In 2003 the NPA set up a task team to investigate about 500 cases of people who went missing during apartheid rule, including Simelane’s case.
After being sent from pillar to post with no progress, the family approached the Foundation for Human Rights to represent their case before the priority crimes unit, in the hope that a proper investigation would begin. Instead their hopes were cut at the knees in 2008, when all investigations into apartheid crimes were put on hold for the Ginwala inquiry into the fitness of advocate Vusi Pikoli to hold the office of national director of public prosecutions.
“There are things that were going on in the background, which at the time we were not aware of, that made it impossible for the case to go anywhere,” said Nkadimeng
Pikoli’s statement speaks of how political interference barred and delayed the investigation of Simelane’s death and possible prosecution of those involved in it.
“The political interference of meddling … is deeply offensive to the rule of law and any notion of independent prosecutions. It explains why the TRC cases have not been pursued.
“It also explains why the disappearance and murder of Nokuthula Simelane was never investigated with any vigour and why the pleas of her family and representatives were ignored,” his submissions to the Ginwala commission read.
After the Ginwala inquiry the family went back to the NPA but were told there was insufficient manpower to investigate the case.
“We were told that the state doesn’t have the resources to investigate the cases as they were preparing for the  World Cup.
“After the World Cup we went back again and nothing came of it. Then we decided to hire a private investigator,” said Nkadimeng.
The family approached world-renowned investigator Frank Dutton. After analysing and reviewing the TRC evidence and comparing the suspects’ versions of events, he found that there were many loopholes and questions that had to be followed up. He believed there was a case to be had against at least four of the officers who appeared before the TRC. And Schoon and a Constable Msebenzi Radebe should have been charged shortly after the amnesty hearing in 2000. Radebe did not even apply for amnesty.
The detective said in a statement last year that Schoon, Coetzee, Pretorius and Mong were already suspects in the torture and murder, among other crimes: “The failure to take such action more than 30 years after the disappearance of Ms Simelane is inexcusable.” He concluded that the delay by the NPA was not a result of negligence but was a wilful decision not to seek justice in this matter.
After Dutton compiled his investigation for the family they set up a meeting with the priority crimes unit and compared their findings.
“After the meeting and knowing that there was enough evidence to prosecute the people involved in the death of my sister, we approached the court to compel the NPA to finalise this,” said Nkadimeng.
At the end of January this year the NPA decided to pursue the matter.
“We are grateful that a prosecution is finally going to happen because there have been those who have sat in the chair before [NPA head] Shaun Abrahams and had the same facts but were unable to come to a decision,” said Nkadimeng.