Nokuthula Simelane’s university degree is still hanging on her mother’s living-room wall. But the young anti-apartheid activist disappeared just weeks before her graduation ceremony in 1983.
Thirty-three years later, the trial against her alleged killers has finally begun.
The body of Simelane, a pretty 23-year-old South African, has never been found.
Her mother long hoped her daughter was living abroad in exile, like many activists at the time.
It wasn’t until 1995 — after the fall of the apartheid government — that she learned Simelane was abducted and killed by state police.
The family has been fighting for justice ever since.
“We have heard from the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) how she was captured, where she was kidnapped, the extent of torture, but things did not end there,” said her sister Thembi Nkadimeng.
“We want to know ultimately what happened to her.”
The TRC, which ran from 1996 to 1998, investigated political crimes committed in South Africa during apartheid, which officially ended when Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress came to power in 1994.
The commission’s mandate was revolutionary: amnesty from prosecution for executioners and henchmen, in exchange for full disclosure.
Three of Simelane’s alleged killers — all police officers — appeared before the TRC.
Their amnesty applications for her murder, however, were denied when the commission decided they didn’t reveal the full truth behind her death.
In total, the TRC recommended about 300 cases for prosecution after denying amnesty.
But to date only “a handful” have been pursued, said TRC head Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu.
The decision to now prosecute four former apartheid police officers was “a most significant and historic decision”, the Nobel peace prize winner said.
“We hope the killers will help us find Nokuthula’s remains,” said Nkadimeng, now the mayor of the northern town of Polokwane and a member of the ruling ANC.
The wait has been particularly hard on Simelane’s mother Ernestina, 75.
“If I can come to the truth and if they are prepared to come to the truth and maybe I get the remains, then I can forgive,” she told AFP, a photo of her missing child on a table just behind her.
– ‘Scandalous indictment’ –
She pulled bags from cupboards, rifling through photocopies and cutouts of newspaper articles until she found a piece from February 6, 1995.
There, on the front page of the local daily Sowetan, was a photo of her daughter, who worked for armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK).
“Cops trapped and killed MK cadre”, the headline read.
A former police officer had come forward anonymously with the tale, ending all hopes Ernestina had that her daughter may be undercover somewhere abroad.
But, it would take another two decades before South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority decided to pursue the murder case.
It was a “scandalous indictment” of the ANC-ruled post-apartheid government, said the Simelane family’s lawyer, Muzi Sikhakhane
“It has been a painful process to persuade a post-apartheid state to prosecute apartheid killers who killed a freedom fighter along whom they fought this battle,” he said.
Former TRC commissioner Dumisa Ntsebeza took it even further.
“It’s a worrying thing that in the 22nd year of our democracy we come to no conclusion but the conclusion that there have been arrangements between the old order and the new order to keep things in abeyance,” he said.
When the four accused appeared in the Pretoria’s Magistrate’s Court late last month, MK veterans packed the benches before staging a short protest outside.
The officers — three white and one black — were granted bail of 5,000 rand ($320, 290 euros) each.
Just behind them sat Ernestina and Nkadimeng, whose hair was wrapped in an ANC turban.
Simelane’s case comes at a time when the conversation in South Africa is dominated by youth-led protests demanding the justice that was never delivered in the creation of Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation”.
“There’s been too little emphasis on the question of truth,” said Janet Love, of the South African Human Rights Commission.
“If we don’t take responsibility as a country for what has gone on in our past for the crime, a crime against humanity, apartheid will linger.”
Simelane’s family agrees.
“I am hopeful that this case will open a lead to everybody, to all those cases sitting in a box,” said her sister.