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Nokuthula Simelane’s family was on their way to watch her graduate from university in 1983, but she never showed up. Ernestine Simelane, seen above, continues the search for her daughter’s remains, with no help from the policemen charged with her murder.GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP / Getty Images

Before she dies, Ernestina Simelane has one final desperate wish. She wants to find the remains of her daughter, who was abducted by apartheid agents more than 30 years ago. And she wants to give her a dignified burial.

In a small Pretoria courtroom this week, Mrs. Simelane gazed silently at the four apartheid-era policemen who are charged with her daughter's murder. She is convinced they could solve the mystery. But when they left the courtroom, they avoided her eyes.

For the families of the disappeared and the dead, apartheid's wounds are still deep and painful. Decades after the crimes of the white minority regime, thousands of South Africans still do not know the fate of their loved ones, or where their remains were buried.

The four ex-policemen, accused of killing 23-year-old university student Nokuthula Simelane in 1983, are among the few to be prosecuted. "Less than a handful" of perpetrators have faced justice in the past 15 years, according to retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, who headed South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 1995 to 2001 and recommended hundreds of prosecutions.

The trial in the Simelane case, scheduled to begin in July, could open the doors to justice for more families. "It is a most significant and historic decision," said Mr. Tutu, who heard testimony about the kidnapping and torture of Nokuthula Simelane at his commission in 1999.

But the struggle for closure has taken decades, and many South Africans have died without knowing the fate of their family members. The post-apartheid government of the African National Congress is reluctant to allow prosecutions because it fears that its own internal secrets could be spilled in the trials, according to human rights activists.

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ended its work, it asked South African prosecutors to prosecute more than 300 cases where the perpetrators had not qualified for an amnesty. Almost none of those cases have led to criminal charges. Even the Simelane family was forced to pursue a private investigation for decades before prosecutors finally agreed to file charges.

The charges in the Simelane case were "long overdue," Mr. Tutu said in a statement.

"What has taken them so long?" he asked. "Why did the authorities turn their backs on the family of Nokuthula, and so many other families, for so many years? Why did the pleas of her family fall on deaf ears for decades? Why did successive South African governments take extraordinary steps to obstruct the course of justice?"

In addition to the 300 prosecutions that the authorities have ignored, there are a further 1,200 cases of people who went missing during the apartheid era when South African police were violently suppressing opposition, according to a database at the Khulumani Support Group, an independent network. These cases, too, have been largely ignored.

The neglect of the families of the disappeared has many parallels in other countries around the world, including Canada. A new study by scholars at Carleton University is looking at the comparison between South Africa's disappeared and the thousands of Canadian aboriginal people who died in residential schools. "There are similarities in terms of being neglected," Madalena Santos, a researcher in the Carleton University study, said.

Canada set up its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission, partly modelled on the South African commission, to investigate what happened at the Indian residential schools. It has estimated that about 6,000 people died in the schools, mostly from disease and malnutrition. As in South Africa, their families were rarely able to recover their bodies. "There's only one case in Canada in which the body of a child who died at residential school was brought home," Prof. Augustine Park, a Carleton University sociologist and principal investigator on the project comparing Canada and South Africa on these issues, said.

Nokuthula Simelane was just days away from graduating from the University of Swaziland when she disappeared in September, 1983. Her family travelled to her graduation ceremony, hoping she would show up there, but she didn't.

It later emerged that she was a courier for the military wing of the ANC, and she had been betrayed by a double agent. She was lured to an underground parking garage in downtown Johannesburg, where she was grabbed by security agents of the apartheid regime. They pushed her into the trunk of a car and drove her away for weeks of interrogation, beatings, electric shocks and other torture – all in an attempt to turn her into an informer.

One of the defendants, Anton Pretorius, described the torture in brutal detail in his testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: "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."

For years, the family kept hoping that she might be still alive. They did not learn of her death until 1995, when a former police officer told the story to a newspaper in Soweto.

The police have insisted Ms. Simelane was still alive when they last saw her. But her family, based on its own investigation, said the torture left her badly injured and the police then killed her.

"We have endured daily agony since her disappearance in 1983," her 75-year-old mother, Ernestina, said in a recent affidavit. "We have not been able to bury Nokuthula's remains with the dignity and respect that she deserves. I desperately want to do this before I die."

The family, which has been seeking justice for Nokuthula since the 1990s, approached one of the former policemen last year, asking him to tell them where she was buried. But he refused to help.

"It's been a long search, for 18 years," said Nokuthula's sister, Thembi Nkadimeng.

"It's still a battle. But through blood and tears, you must go ahead. There's a long way to go, but we're hopeful that justice will finally take its course."

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