South Africa is still dealing with the unresolved horrors of apartheid

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Nokuthula Simelane was kidnapped and tortured by South African police in 1983. Her body has never been found.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — For more than three decades, Nokuthula Simelane’s family has agonized over her fate.

Simelane was just 23, a university graduate and anti-apartheid activist, when she was kidnapped by security branch police officers in 1983. The policemen beat and tortured her for being a courier for uMkhonto weSizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), transporting messages between South Africa and Swaziland.

Simelane was never seen again, and her body never found.

Now, 33 years after she went missing, state prosecutors have announced they will charge four former police officers in her kidnapping and murder. Willem Coetzee, Anton Pretorius, Frederick Mong and Msebenzi Radebe appeared in the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court on Feb. 26, where they were granted bail in advance of the case's referral to the High Court on March 29.

“We know she suffered terribly but we don’t know how she died‚ and where her body is today,” said her sister, Thembi Nkadimeng‚ now the mayor of Polokwane, a provincial capital.

“We have spent three decades looking for Nokuthula. Now we want justice and closure.”

Simelane’s case has shone a light on the failures of the post-apartheid reconciliation process in South Africa. Many here feel that real reconciliation among racial groups wasn't achieved through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which critics say was too lenient toward the perpetrators of violence under the apartheid system. The body was set up to establish the crimes of the apartheid era and to mete out restorative justice. 

Some South Africans feel those most responsible for the apartheid system, including politicians, simply got away with their crimes. 

One of the few apartheid-era leaders to have been jailed was Eugene de Kock, the commander of a police death squad that kidnapped, tortured and killed black activists in the 1980s. He was jailed after the TRC denied him amnesty, ruling that some of his crimes were not politically motivated.

Unlike many other apartheid-era leaders, de Kock was candid about his crimes, though he argued that he was just a policeman following orders. He made efforts to atone by meeting with families of his victims, and helping prosecutors locate bodies.

When he was controversially granted parole last year, de Kock received support from unexpected corners, including from the widows of some of his black victims. 

Widening the fault line between racial groups is the lack of profound economic change in the country: in more than two decades of democracy, South Africa has failed to see a significant economic transformation. According to Goldman Sachs, in 2013, 87 percent of South Africa's white minority enjoyed middle- to upper-income status; 85 percent of black people were poor. 

High-profile racist incidents toward black South Africans in recent months have tapped into the lingering pain and anger.

“The terrible suffering of Nokuthula Simelane’s family is a small part of a much bigger and deeper wound in our society,” writes Franny Rabkin, a legal journalist for South Africa’s Business Day.

“It will not go away on its own. Unless something is done, it will only fester and grow.”

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Testimony at the TRC in 1999 gives a glimpse into the violence experienced by Simelane, described as a slightly built woman, at the hands of the notorious security branch police.

“The method of assaults was to hit her with a flat hand through her face; to punch her with a fist in the side and in the back; and to suffocate her by means of a bag which was used in prison cells, to pull the bag over her head until she began to gasp for breath,” a transcript of officer Coetzee's testimony says.

Police have claimed that through this torture they turned Simelane into an informant, and then took her back to Swaziland. Her own comrades suspected her of being a spy and killed her, the police said.

But Simelane's friends and family said they never saw her in Swaziland after she had allegedly been dropped at the border.

The TRC, which began in 1996, had the power to grant amnesty to those who fully confessed to human rights abuses committed during apartheid, provided they were political crimes. 

But the commission recommended that more than 300 cases, including this one, should be prosecuted.

Nonetheless, Simelane's case was only pursued by prosecutors after her family went to court last year, frustrated by years of roadblocks.

“Nokuthula’s case brings to the fore the need to adequately address the legacy and crimes of apartheid,” said Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, director of the Southern Africa Litigation Center, which is assisting in the case.

“Gross violations of human rights should not and cannot be swept under the rug.”

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Three of the four accused in Simelane’s death had applied for amnesty at the TRC for her kidnapping, but not for her murder. Coetzee, Pretorius and Mong will be charged with her murder, and Radebe will be charged with both kidnapping and murder.

Vusi Pikoli, former head advocate for the national prosecuting authority, said in an affidavit that attempts to prosecute those who didn't apply for amnesty had been blocked by senior ANC politicians. According to Pikoli, they feared that prosecutions could open the door to the prosecutions of ANC combatants.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who chaired the TRC, described the decision to charge police in the death of Simelane as “a most significant and historic decision” but one that is “long overdue.”

In a statement Thursday, Tutu asked: “What has taken them so long? Why did the authorities turn their backs on the family of Nokuthula, and so many other families, for so many years? Why did the pleas of her family fall on deaf ears for decades?”

“I have long said that there remains 'unfinished business' from the TRC,” Tutu said. “How we deal with the truth after its telling defines the success of the process. And this is where South Africa has fallen tragically short. By choosing not to follow through on the commission’s recommendations, government not only compromised the commission’s contribution to the process, but the very process itself.”

Tutu added: “The commission was a beginning, not an end.”

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