Johannesburg – "Brother Lasch, inform mum and my other brothers that the police are going to push me from the 10th floor and I am bidding you goodbye, forever."
These were the words written on the white lining of Matthews Mabelane’s dark green and bloodied Lee branded trousers.
Fearing for his life, he had written the message for his family while he was in detention at John Vorster Square in 1977.
Like he had anticipated, on February 16, 1977, newspaper reports flooded the streets reporting that he had jumped out of the 10th floor of the John Vorster Square building, now Johannesburg Central Police Station.
Following the 23-year-old’s death, his family believed that the message was proof that he did not commit suicide, and that instead, he had died at the hands of apartheid’s security police.
The suspicious circumstances surrounding what had happened to Mabelane have always lingered and now the family want closure and answers to what really happened to their son and brother.
When his brother, Lasch Mabelane, heard that the National Prosecuting Authority had agreed to reopen an inquest into the death of anti-apartheid activist, Ahmed Timol in June, he thought that by attending the inquest sitting at the High Court in Johannesburg, it would also open doors for his family.
The Timol inquest was reopened after the family found new evidence that proved that he did not commit suicide, but instead died in police custody in 1971.
An inquest conducted in 1972 had ruled that Timol committed suicide and that the police were not responsible for his death. Police had alleged that Timol jumped out of a window on the 10th floor of the John Vorster Square building.
The Timol family has always disputed the findings. The inquest, which first sat on June 26 until June 30, is expected to continue again on July 24 until August 4 and then concludes on August 10 and 11.
Timol’s brother, Mohammad, told News24 that Timol was the 22nd detainee to die in custody in 1971.
Also read: Timol testimony: 'The Indian is dead'
Lasch Mabelane attended the first day of the sitting. His stomach knotted as he sat listening to the evidence presented to Judge Billy Mothle, who is overseeing the inquest. Listening to the testimonies was so painful to hear that he could not bring himself to return for the remainder of the week.
Almost three weeks later, the 64-year-old father of two and his elderly father, Phillip Mabelane, agreed to sit down with News24. Wearing a luxurious silk gown covering his checkered pyjamas and sitting on a large maroon leather couch, Phillip Mabelane, 95, said his son’s death devastated him and will be etched in his memory forever.
The man, who was born in Limpopo, and his wife, Messinah, who died in 2001, had six sons – Joshua, Johannes [Lasch], Matthews, Stephen, Phillip and Fanuel. The family lived in Sophiatown in Johannesburg before being forcibly moved to Meadowlands, Soweto. Matthews Mabelane was born in 1954.
"He was a very strict somebody. He sold peanuts, oranges and newspapers at school," said Phillip Mabelane, a retired pastor.
Matthews Mabelane was arrested on January 27, 1977 under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act.
He had, according to newspaper reports on February 16, 1977, a day after his death, been detained on the Botswana border while coming back into the country and then taken to John Vorster Square.
A divisional commissioner of police at the time, major-general W.H Kotze, is quoted in the article as having said Matthews Mabelane jumped onto a chair, forced the window open and climbed onto a 100cm furrowed ledge that runs along the north side of the road.
Kotze said the police officers were taken by surprise because Matthews Mabelane had been sitting calmly at a table earlier. Matthews Mabelane allegedly ran along the ledge and fell on top of a bonnet of a policeman’s private vehicle which had parked in the area.
Phillip was at home listening to the news on that fateful day. "On 15 February 1977, at around 13:00, it was reported in the news on the radio that a student threw themselves out of the window but they did not announce who it was."
It never crossed his mind that the student would be his son. "Later that day, one black policeman came to my home. He said one prisoner has jumped from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square to the ground and he died.
I realised that I had heard the story earlier but I did not know who it was. He said the student that allegedly jumped was my son." The news devastated him. "I was completely disturbed." He could not believe that his son killed himself because he was not suicidal.
"I thought the police did it. Matthews was a well brought up person and he was a pastor’s child. He would never kill himself. Matthews loved life, it was not possible for him to kill himself. I want just justice, the truth and closure," he said.
Lasch Mabelane was only two years old when his brother was born. "All I can remember is that he was a lovely sibling. We got along very well, always smiling and full of jokes. He was, however, very secretive, he conducted his political activities outside our home." He and the family learnt through newspaper reports that Matthews Mabelane was a student political activist.
"We never got to ask him about his activities. He would never declare any information with anyone. He was very private. He conducted all his activities very privately." The newspapers gave the family a glimpse into a side of Matthews Mabelane that was little known to them. Mabelane was 25 years old when he read a story about his brother’s death in the newspaper.
"The news of his death spread like wildfire. It was on the radio, television, newspapers and people were talking about it." Although he had read that his brother had committed suicide, he too did not believe that his brother killed himself.
"I did not believe anything they reported. I came to a conclusion that he was pushed to his death by the police."
He believes that the security police fabricated the story. "The most crucial evidence no longer exists because it is 40 years since the incident happened. Matthew, while in detention, wrote on the inside of the pocket of his trousers, he informed me to tell the other siblings that the police were going to push him from the 10th floor.
"The message read: 'Brother Lasch, inform mum and my other brothers that the police are going to push me from the 10th floor and I am bidding you goodbye forever'." He found the message after the family had been called to John Vorster Square to fetch his brothers' belongings the day he died.
"The clothes were roughly put in a plastic bag. I opened the packet at home and I was in tears because the clothes were full of blood. Especially the brown t-shirt, the dark green trouser and the takkies he was wearing." He said it was impossible to identify whether the injuries his brother sustained were from the fall or from being beaten up in detention.
The Timol inquest has opened old wounds for the Mabelane family.
"I read that the case was being reinvestigated in the newspapers and I went to court because I wanted to capture all the information because Timol’s story was identical to Matthews' story.
"It was particularly hurtful to sit there and digest what was being said. It reminds you of the cruel days back then and it does not make you comfortable." He hopes that the inquest would bring closure for the Timol family and others like his own.
"I would like to do this for my dad before he passes on. His wish is that one of these days he will be called to court to testify about his son, he can’t wait. We need closure and possibly to prosecute the people responsible for Matthews' death."
He said not knowing the truth behind his brother’s death had eroded his father’s soul. Judge Mothle previously urged the family to come forward with any information which may assist in the Timol inquest and Lasch has agreed to make himself available.
National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Luvuyo Mfaku said the Mabelane family should go to the police and open a case.
"They must bring all the evidence and if there are witnesses, they must be interviewed," he said.
After gathering the evidence, the police will escalate the matter to prosecutors who then decide whether the matter is a subject of an inquest. Mfaku said the difference between the two matters was that after Timol died, an inquest was opened in 1972 which ruled that he had committed suicide and that the police were not responsible for his death.