Mpumelelo Mkhabela

We still suffer from apartheid's lack of accountability

2017-10-13 08:42
Ahmed Timol. (Netwerk24)

Ahmed Timol. (Netwerk24)

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In 1998, distinguished human rights lawyer, Advocate George Bizos, published a book titled No One To Blame and subtitled “In Pursuit of Justice in South Africa”. 

The book contains harrowing stories of deaths in detention of anti-apartheid activists and others suspected of being communists by the apartheid security police. 

The book title is an accurate description of the stories contained in it. The lack of accountability cut across those who ran the system – politicians, police officers from the lowest to the highest rank, prosecutors, magistrates and some judges were all complicit.

Although the stories contained in the book have different twists, they have a combination of common denominators: torture, death, denials, lies and lack of accountability. To add to the nauseating list, the ruling politicians reacted to each death with a sense of triumph.

The stories unfolded like this: A suspected member of the ANC, PAC, Black Consciousness Movement or South African Communist Party is arrested. He is taken for questioning under the notorious law that allowed 90 days (later doubled to 180 days) detention without trial. 

Questioning during apartheid was just another word for torture aimed at extracting a confession from a suspect about his or her political allegiances as well as activities of fellow comrades. Failure to reveal would lead to severe physical and psychological harm, and ultimately death. 

The interrogation methods were meant to either break or kill. The deaths would be followed by absurd cover-ups and lies. It appears police officers were specifically trained to lie.

The lies varied according to the whims of the police at any given time after a murder: he hanged himself with his own belt (Solwandle Ngudle, 1963); he committed suicide by jumping from the seventh floor of the Johannesburg Security Police headquarters (Suliman Salojee, 1964); he slipped on a soap while taking a bath (Nicodemus Kgosana and his comrades in 1969); he committed suicide by jumping from his cell at the John Vorster Square police station (Ahmed Timol, 1971); he banged his head against the wall (Steve Biko, 1977). 

There were many such absurd excuses for deaths at the hands of the police. Inquests chaired by magistrates would conclude with a finding that no one was to blame. The magistrates saw themselves as part of the government. It was their duty to exonerate the police. So were the state medical experts that were ready to use their expertise to aide human rights violations. 

In the end, as Bizos correctly pointed out, there was no one to blame for the deaths. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped many families to find closure. But others were left bewildered by half-truths and lies. For many other families, there is still no one to blame for the disappearance or death of their loved ones. 

It is in this context that we must understand the significance of the judgement of Pretoria High Court Judge Billy Mothle who found that Timol was, as always suspected, murdered. 

But there is a question the whole society needs to answer: How can we prevent the past from happening again in whatever form? Put differently, how can we ensure that not a single organ of state possesses so much power as to unleash a killing machinery on citizens?

It is easy to point to our system of constitutional democracy and the Bill of Rights enshrined in the Constitution as the answer.

It is also easy to refer to the many provisions in the supreme law of our land that, if implemented, would make our country the best place to live in. 

But the truth is, the Bill of Rights and all the other ideals spelt out in the Constitution cannot implement themselves. They need champions. All citizens should be the champions. More importantly, we need a government whose respect for the Constitution and the rule of law is beyond reproach.

Unfortunately, we are increasingly faced with a situation where some of our leaders, including those who were imprisoned during apartheid and whose obligation it is now to advance the Constitution, seem to have forgotten. At least their conduct suggests they have forgotten.

In a totally new context, we are seeing the re-emergence of a new version of “no one to blame”. You can be found to have violated the Constitution, but you can easily apologise for causing “frustration”. Nothing will happen to you. 

Striking mine workers have been murdered and there is no one to blame. The regularity of politically motivated killings is becoming normal. But, who is to blame? 

As if this is not devastating enough, the state has been captured and the facts are there for all to see. But, according to those who run our criminal justice system, there is no one to blame. 

We can do better to honour Ngudle, Salojee, Kgosana, Timol, Biko and many others. 

- Mkhabela is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) at the University of Pretoria. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

Read more on:    ahmed timol  |  apartheid  |  constitution

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