'A grave injustice' – 30 years after MK operatives die in Cape Town bombing, loved ones want inquest reopened


It's been 30 years since Selina Williams had her final conversation with her sister Coline. Three decades have passed since her horrific death, for which no one has been held accountable.

Umkhonto we Sizwe operatives Coline Williams and Robbie Waterwitch were killed while on a mission to bomb the Athlone Magistrate's Court in an anti-election campaign.

According to the apartheid authorities, the two blew themselves up when the device detonated prematurely. Their loved ones, however, believe that they had been victims of a security force assassination.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission could not make a conclusive finding into the incident and recommended further investigations by the National Prosecuting Authority into what happened the night of July 23, 1989.

The NPA on Tuesday said the Williams and Waterwitch matters had never been brought to the attention of its Priority Crimes Litigation Unit. A request, however, would be made for the Hawks to register investigations to "see whether the cases can be taken forward". 

Selina has bundles of paperwork and reports ready for the day investigators finally come knocking.

She has too many questions but hardly any answers, the now 46-year-old maintained.

"I don't know what happened that day. All I know is that my sister was a disciplined cadre of the movement who went on a mission and never returned home," she said.

"We want the truth. We want justice - justice delayed is justice denied. It's already been too long."


Coline Williams. (Supplied)

Coline Williams. (Supplied)

Selina had told her sister's story to the TRC in August 1996, when she was 23-years-old.

She had identified what remained of Coline, days after the explosion when her bereft mother fainted at the mortuary. A 16-year-old student activist at the time, she believed the police made her look at Coline's corpse to scare her from her own involvement in the struggle.

Instead, Selina noted her sister's injuries and its inconsistencies with the manner in which she died. The State pathologist could not conclusively find that the pair had succumbed as a result of a bomb blast, she pointed out.

She also questioned how Coline's handbag could have been destroyed in the bombing, but the sanitary pads she had put in it earlier that day did not even contain a speck of dust.

Wilhelmina Williams, Selina Williams and her daugh

Wilhelmina Williams, Selina Williams and her daughter Chloe Begg in front of the statue of Coline and Robbie near the Athlone Magistrate's Court. (Supplied)

Coline left her Bonteheuwel home that fateful Sunday night and was not heard from again.

It was not uncommon for her to be away from home for days as she hid from the authorities who were following and targeting her, Selina recalled.

It was only when their mother Wilhelmina saw a newspaper article the day after the bombing about two bodies being found in Athlone that the Williams' became worried.

Selina remembers arguing with her mother that it could not be Coline. The remains were said to be that of a man and a woman and her sister, Selina naively maintained, was "still a girl".

She nevertheless reached out to all Coline's friends, but no one had seen her.

The Tuesday night, two priests knocked at the Williams' door to break the news.


Right to left: Wilhelmina Williams, Gerard Waterwi

Right to left: Wilhelmina Williams, Gerard Waterwitch, Michel Kriel and Marc Franch. (Supplied)

Coline, a drama student, was only 22-years-old when she was killed.

"The day she died, I remember we sat outside in the sun, speaking about family, politics and my mother's upcoming 50th birthday," Selina recollected.

"She wasn't happy that I would be a student coordinator for the Cape Youth Congress that year. She had been one too and said it was a big responsibility because it made you a target. She taught me that should I ever get arrested and tortured to only talk about myself, not other people. Little did I know that that would be the last hours I would spend with her.

"It was a beautiful day. Now I can look back and appreciate that it was a good farewell."

Raised in a politically active home in Bonteheuwel where they were conscientised by their grandmother, Coline and her brother Ashley were both actively involved in the struggle since their teens.

The two were only a year apart and would often be forced to take their baby sister with them to Cape Youth Congress meetings where she was instructed to "stay quiet and ask no questions", Selina remembered with a smile.

Ashley removed himself from political activity after his sister's death. He died 12 years ago.

Selina spoke proudly of her sister and her legacy.

"What I will always remember about her was her commitment to the struggle, even more so after her detention [for over a year in 1986]. She was my mentor when I started getting involved in politics. She was my comrade, who taught me what a comrade was and that not everyone deserved the name. And she was strong."

Robbie Waterwitch. (Supplied)

Robbie Waterwitch. (Supplied)

Robbie Waterwitch's mother Henrietta "Hettie" Waterwitch-Coetzee, died three years ago. The families had met at the Athlone police station after the bombing when they went to report their loved ones missing days later.

"Hettie had said she was at peace as she knew they were prepared to lay down their lives in the armed struggle. But she always wanted the truth, to know what happened to her son. She died in 2016 without answers," Selina said.

"My mother turns 80 this year. If we can at least start the process while she is alive…" 

According to CARA - an organisation representing family members, comrades and friends of struggle stalwarts Coline, Anton Fransch, Robbie and Ashley Kriel – there was no evidence that the NPA ever looked into Coline and Robbie's deaths after the TRC recommendation.

The organisation's Wesley Fester said the reopening of the inquest into the death of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol, which saw the NPA in 2017 overturn the 1972 finding that he had died by suicide, had made them hopeful that this would mark the beginning of a process to relook hundreds of cases the TRC had recommended for further investigation.

"In all of these cases, apartheid killers either chose to evade the TRC amnesty process, did not qualify for amnesty or were denied amnesty. The State's failure until now to further investigate these cases is not just disrespectful to the contributions of our loved ones but also re-victimises families who have already suffered grievously. It is a grave injustice that fundamentally undermines the integrity of the TRC process."

(CARA, Supplied)

(Facebook: CARA)

ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe saluted the two "young lions" for their roles in the fight for freedom.

"That today we are a free nation is in part because of the sacrifices made by young people such as Coline and Robbie. Indeed, the history of the liberation struggle will be incomplete without mentioning the role played by these young people."

The pair belonged to what he called the "death-defying generation of the 1980s".

"They will be remembered as gallant freedom fighters who selflessly sacrificed their own lives for the liberation of their people. They decided to occupy the foremost trenches in the struggle to fight the injustices of apartheid, and by so doing, chose to confront the callous brutality of the repressive regime with every available ammunition at their disposal. Their militancy, tears and blood have truly earned them a place in history," he said.

The Sowetan in July reported that National Director of Public Prosecutions Shamila Batohi in her address to the justice portfolio committee said the State was prioritising the prosecution of apartheid crimes, with 37 cases being investigated by the Hawks while an NPA task team also reviewed cases.

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