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 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 in exile, like many activists at the time. It wasn’t until 1995 — after the fall of the apartheid regime — that she learned Simelane was abducted and killed by the police.
The family has been fighting for justice ever since.
“We have heard from the 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 truth behind her death. TRC recommended about 300 cases for prosecution.
“To date, only a handful have been pursued,” said TRC head Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The decision to 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 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 said, a photo of her missing child on a table behind her.
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 is a scandalous indictment of the post-apartheid government,” said Simelane family’s lawyer Muzi Sikhakhane. “It has been a painful process to persuade a post-apartheid state prosecute killers of a freedom fighter.”
Former TRC commissioner Dumisa Ntsebeza said it was worrying that in the 22nd year of democracy, there was no conclusion to the case.