JOHANNESBURG — Nokuthula Simelane, a bright and ambitious 23-year-old anti-apartheid activist, was just two weeks away from graduating from college when she disappeared without a trace in September 1983.
Her parents took a three-hour bus trip from the farming town of Bethal in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province to the University of Swaziland to attend her graduation, desperately hoping that she would be there. She was nowhere to be found.
“I was distraught. I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep,” Simelane’s mother, Ernestine, 79, recalled last week, sitting in the meticulously tidy brick bungalow where Simelane grew up as the eldest of four children.
The family later learned that Simelane had been abducted and subjected to weeks of brutal torture by members of apartheid’s notorious security police. Her family never saw her again.
“I’m still waiting to know the truth,” Ernestine Simelane said.
Almost exactly 36 years since Nokuthula Simelane’s disappearance, and a quarter-century since apartheid ended, four former police officers are due to stand trial Thursday for her kidnapping, torture and alleged murder, although the whereabouts of her body is still unknown.
The Simelanes want closure, and they are not alone in their quest. More than 300 apartheid-era political killings and atrocities remain before the state’s National Prosecution Authority — as they have for more than 15 years, since South Africa’s lauded Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended further investigation and possible prosecution in the cases.
Victims’ families say the prosecution authority routinely rebuffed requests for more information and progress on the cases. Officials blame political obstacles and have alleged that the country’s ruling African National Congress party (ANC) has obstructed their work, fearing that party members could face indictment or be exposed as apartheid informants.
“They kept telling me that I must wait, that I am not the only one,” Ernestine Simelane said. “I had already waited for so many years.”
Now, the ANC’s new leadership, under President Cyril Ramaphosa, is facing mounting pressure to address the persisting legacies of apartheid amid high rates of unemployment and inequality.
The unsolved crimes of the former regime have become emblematic of wider disenchantment with the ANC’s post-apartheid project, which has largely failed in its promise to meaningfully redress historical injustice for South Africa’s black majority, said Yasmin Sooka, a former member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“These cases go to the heart of the moral compromise that was made during the transition to democracy,” said Sooka, the executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights, which provides legal representation to some of the victims’ families. “For many people, they are yet another symbol of betrayal by a government that they trusted to satisfy their expectations of justice.”
In a move welcomed by victims’ families and South African civil society, Ramaphosa appointed a new director of public prosecutions, former International Criminal Court legal adviser Shamila Batohi, in December. In her first appearance before Parliament in early July, Batohi said the state would belatedly prioritize the prosecution of apartheid-era crimes.
Victims’ families hope this new push will prompt developments like the watershed moment in the case of teacher and ANC activist Ahmed Timol, 29, that came in June 2017.
An apartheid-era inquest found that he had committed suicide while in police detention in 1971. But a new investigation, opened 45 years later, confirmed what Timol’s family had always believed: He was murdered.
“This was the first time that an apartheid-era inquest finding had been reversed,” said Imtiaz Cajee, a nephew of Timol’s, who published a book about his uncle’s death in 2005. “It has set a new precedent for the country.”
The presiding judge recommended that Joao Rodrigues, an 80-year-old former administrative clerk for the security police who had been in the room at the time of Timol’s death, should be prosecuted for lying to the commission about his involvement and helping to cover up the killing. Rodrigues subsequently sought a permanent stay of prosecution, which was denied in June, marking another victory for the Timol family.
Cajee said the case has provided much needed impetus for other families robbed of their loved ones by the apartheid regime. “After so many years, it gives them a glimmer of hope,” he said. “It mobilizes all of us to seek genuine forms of closure together.”
For Garth Stevens, deputy dean of the humanities faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and a primary researcher on the Apartheid Archives Research Project, revisiting the crimes of apartheid also serves a broader social function.
“A lot of the political focus post-apartheid was initially on nation-building, on looking forward and not backward,” Stevens said. “But that did not take into account the unfinished business of transformation. These cases can contribute to a kind of revision of history, and I mean that in a very positive sense.”
But time is running out. Many perpetrators are now in their 70s and 80s and are often in poor health; others died long ago.
Two of Timol’s alleged interrogators died before the inquest was reopened in 2017, while one of the original accused in the Simelane case died shortly after the docket was put on the court roll in 2016.
A number of victims’ relatives have shared the same fate. In her living room in Bethal, Ernestine Simelane points to a large framed portrait of one of her two sons on the wood-paneled wall behind her. The former school principal died of colon cancer in 2015. Nokuthula Simelane’s father died of a heart attack in 2001.
“At the time, I thought I wouldn’t last much longer than him,” Ernestine Simelane said. “Somehow, I’ve fought on all these years, though I wouldn’t wish such pain on anyone.”
Many of Ernestine Simelane’s relatives spanning generations are buried in an increasingly overcrowded cemetery about a 10-minute drive from her home. Last week, she made the short trip across the formerly “blacks-only” township of Mzinoni for a relative’s burial.
She wants to do the same for her daughter.
“Before I die, all I want is to know where Nokuthula is buried so that I can get her remains and bury them here with the rest of the family,” she said. “That is a final dignity that we both deserve.”