S. Africa plans to prosecute apartheid-era police officers for murder

South African prosecutors will charge four former members of the apartheid-era security forces for the 1983 murder of Nokuthula Simelane.

AP/Pool, File
FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 27, 1997 file photo, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife Leah arrive at the special public hearing of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Johannesburg. South African prosecutors plan to charge four former members of the apartheid-era security forces for the 1983 murder of a young woman who had recently graduated from university and was a courier for the then-banned African National Congress.

The body of a young anti-apartheid activist who was kidnapped and tortured in 1983 by South African police has never been found, her family never able to mourn at a grave, her killers not sent to prison.

Now, more than three decades later, prosecutors plan to charge four police officers for the murder of Nokuthula Simelane after Simelane's family went to court to force the National Prosecuting Authority to press charges.

The new move against the former policemen goes to the heart of long-running tension in South Africa over the push for reconciliation among the country's racial groups and the desire to punish perpetrators of human rights abuses during the traumatic decades that preceded multi-racial elections in 1994. But the case is murky, with some of the officers involved having admitted to kidnapping and torturing the young woman, but claiming they released her after she agreed to be an informant.

The 23-year-old, freshly graduated from university, had been a courier for the armed wing of the then-banned African National Congress when she was snatched by the police and tortured for weeks, according to the officers' own testimony 16 years ago to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

But the policemen insisted that they had succeeded in "turning" Simelane through the torture, convincing her to work for them. The police said officers had driven her to Swaziland, where she had been living and attending college before she was kidnapped, to be their informant against the ANC.

She was never seen in Swaziland by relatives or friends after she was purportedly dropped off at the border. The police indicated that anti-apartheid fighters might have eliminated Simelane themselves.

Luvuyo Mfaku, a prosecution spokesman, said the decision to prosecute was based on the "strength of the evidence and the merits of the case."

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which could grant amnesty to those who fully confessed to human rights abuses committed during apartheid, recommended that more than 300 cases be prosecuted, but the Simelane murder is "one of the only" cases pursued by prosecutors, according to a statement from an attorney for Simelane's family and a lawyer for the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, which is involved in the case.

The suspects are Willem Coetzee, Anton Pretorius, Frederick Mong and Msebenzi Radebe, the statement said.

"For us, as a family, this has been a long way coming," said Thembi Nkadimeng, Simelane's sister and mayor of Polokwane, a city in northeastern South African.

"We are hopeful that this step will bring us closer to the truth," Nkadimeng said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

Simelane's father had described to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission how he and his wife, trying to learn what had happened to their daughter, had been rebuffed by the ANC, which at the time was the main anti-apartheid movement and which has been South Africa's ruling party since white rule ended in 1994.

"I know she was being used and sent as a courier of ANC and suddenly thereafter she disappeared, but what hurts the most is that they never told me the truth and also that they never sent her, they pretended as if they did not know Nokuthula at all," the father told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997.

He has since died; Simelane's mother is 75 years old.

Simelane had been an "underground operative" for the ANC's military wing, called Spear of the Nation, according to prosecutors.

She was abducted and was illegally held by the Soweto Special Branch, a police unit, for a week at a police barracks in Johannesburg, where she was tortured under questioning, prosecutors said. Simelane was then interrogated and tortured at a farm for several weeks, they said.

"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," according to testimony presented at the truth commission in 1999.

"So you hit her with conviction?" the chairperson of the commission hearing asked Coetzee all those years ago.

"Yes, I hit her hard," he said, having already described Simelane as a slender woman.

The four suspects are due in the Pretoria Magistrate's Court on Feb. 26, the National Prosecuting Authority said Monday.

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