Time is robbing the families of many victims of apartheid of closure and justice as alleged perpetrators continue to die before they are held to account.
In 2018, former Security Branch cop Joao Rodrigues was finally charged with the murder of Ahmed Timol, offering the struggle activist’s family a glimmer of hope that justice might at long last be served.
But Rodrigues died this week with the case yet to go to trial, dashing that hope and giving rise to new fears of justice delayed becoming justice denied for victims of apartheid-era crimes.
“With each passing day, what one is doing is compromising both the question of truth for the victims’ loved ones and the question of justice. And that’s really inconceivable and unacceptable,” the Foundation for Human Rights’ Yasmin Sooka, who is also a specialist human rights lawyer and former commissioner at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), said on Wednesday.
Timol died in apartheid police custody after falling several storeys from the infamous John Vorster Square on 27 October 1971.
His death was originally ruled a suicide but a new inquest, established on the back of sustained pressure from the family and civil society, in 2017 overturned that conclusion, finding instead that Timol was murdered and prompting the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to charge Rodrigues.
The authorities have been criticised for the slow pace at which they have been moving on apartheid-era cases – with only three of the 300-odd which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) referred to the NPA for further investigation in 1998, having since found their way to court.
In dismissing an application from Rodrigues for a permanent stay of prosecution, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) in June raised concerns with the delays from 2003 until 2017 especially.
Investigations into TRC cases were stopped as a result of an executive decision – one which the SCA described as “perplexing and inexplicable”.
“It’s a violation of our international and domestic obligations that we have not pursued these cases. It compromises the rule of law and as fosters the impunity which you see across the state today,” Sooka said yesterday.
“But we probably have a small window of opportunity and that means we have to act with real urgency now,” she said.
Lukhanyo Calata’ father, Fort Calata, was part of the so-called “Cradock Four” and he has dedicated his life to trying to secure justice for their 1985 murders.
But he has had no joy. Calata said yesterday the system was failing families of victims of apartheid-era crimes.
“But that failure is by design. It’s all political, we know that. Why is the ANC doing this to the very same people who bled and died for our democracy?” he said.
Over and above immense frustration, Calata said he felt “deeply, deeply betrayed”. “Some of the people in government today – ministers, deputy ministers – and some who have been in power over the past 27 years, are people who were my father’s peers,” he said.
“How is it that once they got into these positions of power, they forgot about those who had fallen along the way?”
Timol’s case is not unique. New inquests into the deaths in detention of trade unionist and doctor Neil Aggett and dental graduate and activist Hoosen Haffejee – both of which were too originally ruled suicides – have also since been convened.
With judgment pending in the former and proceedings still underway in the latter, it remains to be seen whether anyone will be held to account for either death.