An assassination plotted by the highest echelons of the apartheid regime is slowly being resurrected nearly 33 years after it sent shockwaves throughout the South African liberation movement.
But now, as a spark of hope is ignited that the murders of the four men known as the Cradock Four might finally be investigated, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the South African Police Service (SAPS) have been accused of suppressing apartheid-era investigations.
In 1985, the apartheid state was thrown into panic when people from an obscure township called Lingelihle, next to Cradock in the Eastern Cape, wrested power from the government with protests that culminated in the resignation of members of the Lingelihle puppet council, which was dissolved. The protests were led by the Cradock Four, in a resistance movement aligned with the United Democratic Front.
Fort Calata, Matthew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlauli were executed by the apartheid police in an effort to suppress dissent. On the day of their funeral, then-president PW Botha declared the 1985 state of emergency.
Their killers were members of the Security Branch. But Cabinet members, including FW de Klerk, sat in meetings to discuss the assassination. Others, such as Adriaan Vlok, deputy minister of law and order, were implicated in the planning of their deaths. Vlok had been to Calata’s house less than a month before he was killed.
A reopened inquest found in 1994 that the apartheid state was responsible for their deaths. Calata’s son, Lukhanyo, has steadily applied pressure on the democratic government to prosecute those responsible for his father’s murder since the inquest’s findings.
In 2018, Lukhanyo, a journalist, met Shaun Abrahams, when he was still the national director of public prosecutions. A reopened investigation into his father’s death was under way and Abrahams was waiting to hear from investigators.
But court papers reveal that the lead investigators, a Colonel Vreugdenburg and Captain C Simpson, assigned by the Hawks to the case, were former Security Branch officers. Hawks spokesperson Hangwani Mulaudzi confirmed this. The Hawks did not confirm the two investigators’ first names, but said they had been removed from the case following complaints.
The court papers were filed by Imtiaz Cajee, the nephew of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol, in his case to have his uncle’s murder prosecuted. He said he believed that the SAPS and the NPA had been “captured” by political forces because of their conduct in cases related to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
In January last year, the NPA had a list of 20 TRC-related cases that could be reopened for investigation. “Astonishingly, two former SB [Security Branch] officers were appointed to lead these investigations,” Cajee said.
In 1986, one year after the Cradock Four were murdered, Richard Motasi was arrested and tortured by the security police. Motasi was a sergeant in the police force, but he was accused of being a double agent.
In an affidavit filed against the police for assault, Motasi wrote that Vreugdenburg was involved in his torture. A line of his affidavit, as quoted in a thesis by John Miles at the University of the Western Cape, reads: “tortured by W/O La Grange, sgt Raath and const Vreugdenburg”.
Moray Hathorn, an attorney at Webber Wentzel who is working on some of the apartheid-era cases, confirmed his team made a complaint to the Hawks when they realised who the investigators were.
Mulaudzi said that when the complaint was made the investigators were removed from all TRC cases.
For Lukhanyo Calata, the appointment of the Security Branch officers to the case is not surprising. He has access to declassified apartheid-era documents that detail how De Klerk attended a meeting at which his father’s murder had been discussed by the State Security Council. These documents are also available in the South African History Archive. The paper trail reveals the planning involved in the assassination plot.
In total, six policemen were denied amnesty at the TRC for the murders. They included former security police head Harold Snyman, who led the interrogation of Steve Biko in 1977.
Calata believes that, if his father’s death is prosecuted, the ANC itself would be in trouble.
“There is a very high probability that they [the ANC] used my father’s life to negotiate for this democracy that we have today,” Calata said.
The Cradock Four case could also see senior apartheid leaders would be prosecuted. Calata believes the ANC is trying to avoid this to protect its own members from prosecution in TRC-related cases.
Allegations of political interference in the prosecution of TRC cases have a long history. In 2015, Vusi Pikoli, the former head of the NPA, filed an affidavit in the high court in Pretoria stating that he had been blocked from prosecuting TRC cases by members of government. He implicated former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi in the attempts to obstruct prosecution.
In Cajee’s court papers, a secret memo written by Pikoli to then justice minister Brigitte Mabandla in 2007 sets out some detail about the interference the NPA experienced. Pikoli told Mabandla that Selebi, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and representatives from the justice department who were meant to assist the NPA in its investigations of TRC-related cases were trampling on the NPA’s mandate by insisting they had powers to make decisions about prosecutions — a role reserved for the national director of public prosecutions.
“I have now reached a point where I honestly believe that there is improper interference with my work and that I am hindered and/or obstructed from carrying out my functions on this particular matter. Legally, I have reached a dead end,” Pikoli wrote. “It would appear that there is a general expectation on the part of the department of justice and constitutional development, SAPS and NIA that there will be no prosecutions and that I must play along. My conscience and oath of office that I took [do] not allow that.”
Pikoli added he could not carry on with the TRC cases and would await direction from the government.
In 2008, the Amended Prosecution Policy, which formulated the NPA’s handling of TRC cases, was struck down by Judge Francis Legodi in the high court in Pretoria. He found there had been political interference. The case was brought by the widows of the Cradock Four, Thembi Nkadimeng (the sister of slain Umkhonto weSizwe operative Nokuthula Simelane) and civil society organisations.
Calata believes there is still interference within the ranks of the NPA and the SAPS in TRC cases. He said there was enough evidence to begin a prosecution, but he had had no feedback on the case since his meeting with Abrahams last year.
“I’m just a journalist but, with just a little bit of digging, I found a proper paper trail. I’m not a prosecutor, I’m not an investigator for the NPA or for the Hawks, but here I have got those documents in my house,” he said.
“This evidence is in the state’s hands. It’s the state’s responsibility. It’s in their hands.”