A 33-year wait for justice

Thembi Nkadimeng
Thembi Nkadimeng

Thembi Nkadimeng was just nine when her sister went missing.

She remembers answering a call from someone from Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), who asked if Nokuthula Simelane – a courier for MK between South Africa and Swaziland – had returned home from a meeting.

She told him her sister was not home and had not been home for some time. Her mother, wary about someone enquiring about her child, snatched the phone away. She then called for pen and paper, and started making notes.

This year, Simelane will have been missing, presumed dead, for 33 years.

When she disappeared, she was just days away from obtaining a degree in public administration from the University of Swaziland. Her family travelled to Swaziland from Mpumalanga for her graduation, hoping she would show up. She wasn’t there.

It took Nkadimeng a long time to fully grasp what had happened.

“All I knew at that stage was that she no longer visits,” she said on Thursday.

On Monday, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) announced it would prosecute four members of the Soweto Special Branch in connection with Simelane’s murder. The NPA has declined to reveal their names, and they will appear in the Pretoria Magistrates’ Court on February 26 on charges of murder.

Nkadimeng smiles briefly when reminiscing about her sister.

“She loved reading. She loved cooking. She was a three-course meal type of person, but she would always eat dessert first. Dessert was custard and jelly in those times. She was tall and slim, and so beautiful. She had a sense of style. She was my role model. When I look at the people who were her friends, people like [secretary of defence] Mpumi Mpofu, I picture who she could have been today.”

Until the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings took place, the family hoped that Simelane had simply gone underground and would return at some point.

“I went to the TRC with my family. It was very painful for all of us. We were in tears. It was sad. It was gruesome. It was the first time we interacted with the facts and the judges were so thorough. They asked: ‘Did you kick her? Did you punch her? What did you do?’ And they said: ‘We would throw her into the dam; she would soil herself. We would cover her with a wet bag until she would lose consciousness.’

“It was worse for my mum. She suffered a nervous breakdown. We were so hopeful that process would bring us ultimate closure,” Nkadimeng said.

Simelane’s remains have never been found.

The family recently buried another relative. Last year, Lungelo Simelane died of colon cancer shortly after the family applied to the North Gauteng High Court for an order to force the NPA to open an inquest into his sister’s murder.

“He was close to my sister, born after her. He was one of the last people to see my sister. He saw her the day before she left,” Nkadimeng said.

In court papers, former NPA head Vusi Pikoli claimed that attempts to prosecute those who didn’t apply for amnesty were blocked by senior ANC politicians.

Nkadimeng’s 75-year-old mother still cries every day. Nkadimeng decided not to tell her that the NPA was going to prosecute the men because she was afraid of disappointing her with yet another delay. But on Monday, the family was told after the news broke, and Nkadimeng had to rush home and tell her mother before anyone else did.

“I sent my uncle’s child to go be with her in case she found out and collapsed. When I received the letter from the NPA by email, I lay in bed alone and cried. At first I wondered why I was born into this family. I wish I had a choice,” said Nkadimeng, who is the mayor of Polokwane.

“I wish people could understand, because I don’t think I’m strong. People don’t understand what happens to me when I am alone. To be honest, I break down. But I can’t do it to my mum, and that is the only person who would understand. I can’t do it to my kids because they expect me to be strong.”

The family will got to court in two weeks’ time, carrying with them only a glimmer of hope but no trust, and serious scepticism, after almost 33 years of waiting.

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