My sister’s heart

2013-12-26 16:00

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On the 30th anniversary of her sister’s disappearance, Thembi Nkadimeng writes about the MK envoy who refused to turn her back on the cause

The story of my sister, Nokuthula Simelane, is about freedom and betrayal. My sister believed in freedom with every fibre of her being.

It was her unshakeable dedication to freedom that took her to the Carlton Centre in Johannesburg on the morning of September 8 1983.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of her disappearance.

A 23-year-old university graduate at the time, she was a courier for Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the ANC’s armed wing, moving between Swaziland and South Africa. She was betrayed by one of her own.

Instead of a scheduled rendezvous with a comrade, she was met by members of South Africa’s hated security police, who shoved her into the boot of a vehicle.

This betrayal was to condemn Nokuthula to a choice between life and death. An informant’s life – a betrayal that would crush her spirit – or death with her dignity intact. In reality, there was no real choice for Nokuthula.

A photo of Nokuthula Simelane from the family archives

Her commitment to what she loved most dearly made the first option unthinkable.

My sister’s death was not swift and it was not painless. The security police drove her to the police barracks in Johannesburg.

There, they tortured her.

After several days, she was moved to an isolated farm in the north of the then Transvaal, where her abuse intensified. It lasted for some three weeks.

Her torturers were convinced that with enough force this young, inexperienced woman would break and become an informant.

They believed that it was just a question of more violence and more fear: a few more vicious blows to her head, to her face and her body, or perhaps a few more near-drownings in an icy dam.

Maybe more days of solitary confinement shackled in handcuffs and leg irons in filthy conditions would push her over the edge.

The black police officers who testified before the Amnesty Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) reported that after weeks of torture, my sister was unrecognisable. H

er face was an appalling mess of bruises and swelling. She was too weak to walk.

The last time they saw her was when she was being pushed into the boot of one of the white officer’s vehicles.

My family and I have not rested since we learnt that my sister went missing. We know the most terrible things about what she suffered. But we don’t know how she died and where her body is today. We have spent three decades looking for Nokuthula.

We even appointed private detectives to assist us. Until we find her remains, or get answers about what really happened to her, we remain trapped in the past.

We did not expect the former South African Police to investigate themselves. However, we firmly believed that the new democratic South Africa would take the necessary steps.

We were wrong. This was the second betrayal of Nokuthula and everything she stood for.

This betrayal cut the deepest. My father went to his grave without knowing what happened to Nokuthula. My mother, now sick and old, fears that she will die without knowing – and without burying Nokuthula’s remains with the dignity she deserves.

The Amnesty Committee of the TRC concluded that the white officers had lied to the commission about the degree of torture as well as her ultimate fate. They, nevertheless, granted amnesty to those officers for Nokuthula’s kidnapping.

Nobody applied for amnesty for her murder. The committee betrayed its own law, which states that amnesty can only be granted in exchange for the truth and full disclosure.

How could they grant amnesty when they knew that the white officers had lied about what they did to Nokuthula during and after her kidnapping? The Amnesty Committee betrayed our faith in them and in the truth and reconciliation process.

The police and the prosecutors could have taken up the matter. However, they chose not to, though a police docket was opened in 1996.

After the amnesty decision in 2001, the matter was referred to the National Prosecuting Authority.

When I approached them, they advised me that their hands were tied as they were waiting for a new policy to deal with the so-called political cases. When the new prosecution policy emerged in late 2005, it essentially created a backdoor amnesty.

It gave perpetrators, like my sister’s killers, a second opportunity to escape justice.

Together with the widows of the Cradock Four, the young freedom fighters murdered by a police hit squad in 1985, I went to court to challenge the policy. In 2008 a Pretoria High Court judge struck down the policy, declaring it to be absurd and unconstitutional.

We thought this meant that the path was eventually cleared for justice to take its course. Again, we were wrong.

This time the prosecutors claimed that the police were refusing to provide investigators. It took a high-level intervention for an investigating officer to eventually be appointed to the case in 2010 – but apparently the docket had gone “missing”.

Three years later, even after finding the docket, there was no progress. It was clear to me that the authorities were not going to investigate the case seriously, let alone prosecute anyone.

They even refused to charge those police officers involved in the kidnapping who did not apply for amnesty. At the beginning of 2013, I instructed my lawyers to demand the holding of a judicial inquest into her death.

This request was refused. After 17 years of idleness, the prosecutors advised us that their investigations were still not yet complete. We do not believe them.

We have lost all faith in the prosecutors and police. They have betrayed our trust.

They now claim that they are occupied with inquiries, which could conceivably drag on indefinitely while witnesses and suspects grow old and die. We do not know why the authorities in the new South Africa would turn their backs on one of their own.

Nokuthula’s ultimate sacrifice helped to pave the way for the freedom and democracy we now enjoy.

We cannot bury her and we can find no peace. The betrayal of my sister, and what she stood for, is almost complete.

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