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Families who have waited to see justice for decades-old atrocities are seeing new strides – despite unexpected resistance from the movement that ended apartheid in the first place

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At his Pretoria home in 2017, Imtiaz Cajee, holds a portrait of his uncle Ahmed Timol, an anti-apartheid activist brutally killed in police custody in October, 1971. The families of victims from apartheid-era South Africa are joining forces to push for prosecutions in dozens of long-neglected cases.GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

The police were relentless in their pursuit of Albert Lutuli, the Methodist preacher and anti-apartheid activist who became the first African to win a Nobel Peace Prize. For years, they imprisoned him or kept him under house arrest, banning him from travelling.

And then, one day in 1967, Mr. Lutuli was mysteriously killed on a railway track near his home in Natal province. The authorities said it was an accidental death, caused by a freight train. His family was never convinced. It was just one of the dozens of unexplained deaths of anti-apartheid leaders – a grim toll that mounted in the final decades of white-minority rule.

Today, a quarter-century after apartheid ended, there is growing pressure to bring truth and justice to the families of those who were killed. But there has also been surprising resistance from an unexpected source: the government led by Mr. Lutuli’s own former political movement, the African National Congress (ANC).

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London, 1961: Albert Luthuli, former Zulu chief, gets ready to board a plane to Oslo, where he was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize.Keystone

Despite government pledges since 2003, and despite repeated pleas by the families of the victims, several hundred cases of apartheid crimes – including murder and torture – are still languishing on the dusty shelves of South Africa’s police and prosecution authorities.

There is strong evidence, including sworn statements by senior officials, that the ANC government deliberately stalled the apartheid cases because it feared that its own members could face investigation for apartheid-era crimes if the police crimes were prosecuted. But now there are increasing demands to break the stalemate and provide some measure of justice before witnesses die or evidence disappears.

Civil-society activists – including another Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu – have launched a campaign to seek prosecutions for apartheid crimes. Their quest is being reinforced by a crucial new test case: a murder charge against a former police officer for allegedly helping to cover up the slaying of Ahmed Timol, an anti-apartheid activist who was hurled to his death from the top of a police station in 1971.

“There is a clear sense of urgency,” said Mr. Timol’s nephew, Imtiaz Cajee, who has spent decades fighting for justice for his uncle.

Mr. Timol’s family and other families of victims are building a network of supporters across South Africa to push for prosecutions in dozens of long-neglected cases. If they can win a full trial against Joao Rodrigues, the retired police officer who admits he was in the room with Mr. Timol when he plunged to his death, there will be hope for many others.

“The Timol family has received overwhelming support nationally,” Mr. Cajee told The Globe and Mail in an interview. “The reopening of the Timol case [has] given us a glimmer of hope that justice will finally be done.”

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Pretoria, Aug. 1, 2017: Former apartheid-era policeman Joao Rodrigues testifies during an inquest into Ahmed Timol's death in 1971. He was present in the room when Mr. Timol plunged to his death at a Johannesburg police headquarters.MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images

The Southern Africa Litigation Centre, a human-rights group, intervened in the Timol case last month to ask the court to indict Mr. Rodrigues for crimes against humanity, rather than just murder.

“This case is not about a single murder," said the group’s executive director, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh. “It is about how a single murder is connected to the system of apartheid and therefore becomes a crime against humanity. The crime of apartheid has never been prosecuted, and this case should pave the way for such prosecutions to commence.”

But the resistance is still strong. Even after powerful new evidence was found and an inquest recommended a murder charge against the last living suspect, it still took nine months before Mr. Rodrigues made his first court appearance – and then the case was stalled again. The 79-year-old’s lawyers, citing the decades of delays, argued recently that the case should be dismissed because it took the authorities so long to file the murder charge. The case is sure to make its way to the Constitutional Court, South Africa’s highest court, to decide if the prosecution against Mr. Rodrigues can move forward, which could set a legal precedent for pursuing other such cases.

Ten former commissioners of the famed Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which spent years gathering evidence of apartheid atrocities for a historic report in 2003, have joined the families of the victims in voicing outrage at the delays. They have called for an inquiry into the political interference that blocked the cases.

In the 16 years since the TRC report, “the story of post-apartheid justice in South Africa is a shameful story of terrible neglect,” said a letter by the commissioners, including Archbishop Tutu, who played a key role in fighting apartheid in the 1980s.

“The families feel justifiably betrayed by South Africa’s post-apartheid state, which, to date, has turned its back on them,” the former commissioners said. “No expression of regret, remorse or apology has been offered by anybody in authority for the deep betrayal of victims of past atrocities. … We owe them answers and we owe them an apology.”

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Skuzuz, South Africa, 1994: ANC leader Nelson Mandela, South African president Frederik W. de Klerk and Zulu King Goodwill Zweletini speak after meetings to bring an end to bloodshed in KwaZulu Natal province. That year, South Africans voted in an election that brought Mr. Mandela to power.PHILIP LITTLETON/AFP/Getty Images

The former commissioners sent the letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa two months ago and the government has yet to respond.

After apartheid ended in 1994 with an election that propelled Nelson Mandela and the ANC into power, the new government promised a truth and reconciliation process to give a measure of closure to the victims. The TRC granted amnesty to some apartheid-era perpetrators who confessed to their crimes and gave a full account of what happened. But many others refused to testify or were denied amnesty.

“Most victims accepted the necessary and harsh compromises that had to be made to cross the historic bridge from apartheid to democracy,” the former commissioners said in their letter.

“They did so on the basis that there would be a genuine follow-up of those offenders who spurned the [TRC] process and those who were refused amnesty. Sadly, this has not happened. … The failure stands as a betrayal of victims who have been waiting for the criminal justice process to take its course and has added considerably to their trauma.”

The TRC had recommended that the police and prosecutors should investigate several hundred apartheid cases for possible criminal charges. “Virtually all of them were abandoned,” the former commissioners said. The police and prosecutors “colluded with political forces to ensure the deliberate suppression of the bulk of apartheid-era cases,” they said.

“Those behind the suppression of these cases may very well have been involved in a conspiracy to obstruct or defeat the course of justice, which is a very serious crime in South African law.”

The only cases that have made any progress in recent years – although at an agonizingly slow pace – were the deaths of Mr. Timol and another anti-apartheid activist, Nokuthula Simelane, allegedly killed by police in 1983. In both cases, their families were forced to conduct their own private investigations using lawyers who donated their services, a process that took many years.

There are many reasons why these cases were neglected for so long, including the apathy of key prosecutors and the influence of former apartheid police officers in South Africa’s postapartheid police force. But sworn affidavits in the Timol and Simelane cases make it clear the ANC government interfered to block the course of justice.

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Bethal, South Africa, 2016: Ernestine Simelane, mother of slain anti-apartheid activist Nokuthula Simelane, poses with a portrait of her daughter.GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

Several former senior officials of South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority – including Vusi Pikoli, former head of the prosecuting authority – gave affidavits describing the political interference. Mr. Pikoli said he had been subjected to improper interference and pressure from the ANC government to drop the cases. He cited a confidential letter in 2007 from Brigitte Mabandla, the justice minister at the time, telling him that the apartheid cases were being dropped.

An affidavit by a senior prosecutor in the current authority, Torie Pretorius, confirmed that the ANC government had taken “political steps” to “manage” the investigations and find a “political solution” that would avoid criminal prosecutions.

These admissions have revived the country’s anger at the decades of delays. “In our midst, there walk thousands of men who committed the most heinous murders and torture in the name of preserving the apartheid system and defending the state that underpinned it,” wrote South African political analyst Mondli Makhanya in a recent commentary.

But now there is growing hope for justice. The affidavits in the Timol case have cited a long list of apartheid mysteries that should be pursued – including the death of Mr. Lutuli, whose family has been seeking the reopening of his case since 2016.

If the Timol charges are sustained, authorities could reopen the cases of other prominent anti-apartheid activists such as Steve Biko and Neil Aggett, who both also died in police custody. Dozens of lesser-known cases could also be given a full investigation for the first time. In many cases, the apartheid authorities claimed that the victims had died because they “committed suicide,” or “slipped on a piece of soap” while in police custody – absurd explanations that have lost any power to persuade.

The police claimed Mr. Timol died by suicide in 1971 by flinging himself from a window of South Africa’s most notorious police station. But after months of evidence at a fresh inquest in 2017, a judge demolished the decades-old conspiracy and called for murder charges. If the case survives the legal challenges from Mr. Rodrigues this year, it could pave the way for more long-overdue cases to finally see the light of day.

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During South Africa's apartheid era, several anti-apartheid activists died in police custody or under mysterious circumstances, but their deaths have gone largely uninvestigated in the courts. They include Imam Abdullah Haron and Steve Biko, top left; Ahmed Timol, bottom left; Albert Lutuli, middle; and Nokuthula Simelane and Neil Aggett, right.IMAM ABDULLAH HARON FOUNDATION; REUTERS; AHMED TIMOL FAMILY TRUST; AFP/GETTY IMAGES; DIGITAL INNOVATION SOUTH AFRICA

Apartheid’s deadly toll: Six key cases

Here are just a few of the hundreds of apartheid-era cases, neglected for decades, that are still waiting for full investigations and justice.

Steve Biko

He was a student leader who became an icon of the anti-apartheid cause, helping to create the Black Consciousness Movement, a leading grassroots organization of the 1970s. As his influence grew, the apartheid authorities placed him under a banning order, subjecting him to internal exile and restrictions on political activity. After an arrest in 1977, at the age of 30, he was severely beaten by state security agents and died of his injuries. His life inspired the 1987 film Cry Freedom.

Albert Lutuli

He was a school principal, lay preacher and tribal chieftain who joined the ANC in 1944. By the 1950s, as he rose up the ranks of the movement, he was organizing non-violent campaigns to defy apartheid’s laws. In 1952, he became the ANC’s national leader and was immediately subjected to bans on his travel. Despite arrests and imprisonment, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960. He remained the ANC leader even after he was forced into internal exile. He was visited by U.S. senator Robert Kennedy in 1966, bringing more attention to the anti-apartheid cause. He died under mysterious circumstances in 1967 when he was allegedly hit by a freight train.

Nokuthula Simelane

She was a 23-year-old university student who worked secretly as a courier for the ANC’s military wing. Betrayed by a double agent in 1983, she was lured to an underground garage and seized by security agents. Testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including a confession by a former agent, revealed that she had been tortured with beatings and electric shocks. Then she disappeared. Her body was never found. Four former police officers have been accused of killing her, but their trial has been repeatedly delayed.

Ahmed Timol

He was an anti-apartheid activist who was covertly distributing leaflets for the banned ANC when, in 1971, at the age of 29, he was arrested and taken to central Johannesburg for interrogation at the country’s most notorious police station. A fellow detainee later caught a glimpse of him, weak and badly injured, as police dragged him along the floor. He plunged to his death from the 10th floor of the building and police claimed it was suicide. But a 1977 inquest concluded that the police had tortured him and hurled him to his death.

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Imam Abdullah Haron, shown in 1967.Imam Abdullah Haron Foundation

Imam Abdullah Haron

He was a Muslim cleric in Cape Town in the 1950s and 1960s who became an anti-apartheid activist. In 1965, his family was evicted from their home because of the apartheid Group Areas Act – a law he had earlier criticized as “inhuman” and “barbaric.” When he learned that he was a target of apartheid police, he applied to emigrate to Canada, but was rejected. Shortly afterward, in May, 1969, he was arrested. He died after four months of solitary confinement and torture. A government inquest in the months after his death said he had fallen down a flight of stairs.

Neil Aggett

He was a medical doctor and trade-union activist who worked in overcrowded black hospitals in the 1970s and began organizing unions and strike action in the food industry. By 1981 at the age of 27, he was involved in broader efforts to create a mass democratic movement with union support, and the authorities were increasingly harassing him. He was arrested in late 1981 and brought to the same notorious police station where Mr. Timol died a decade earlier. He was held for 70 days without trial, subjected to assault, electric shocks and other torture. When he died in February, 1982, the authorities claimed he had died by suicide, an explanation that few people have ever accepted.

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