Skip to main content

Family members of apartheid victims welcomed the appointment of an independent legal expert to review the handling of apartheid cases by South Africa’s national prosecuting authority. “This is certainly welcomed and long overdue,” said Imtiaz Cajee, nephew of an anti-apartheid activist, Ahmed Timol, who was hurled to his death from the top of the Johannesburg Central Police Station (pictured) in 1971.GULSHAN KHAN/AFP / Getty Images

It’s one of the biggest mysteries of South Africa’s postapartheid era: Why did its new democratic government fail to prosecute hundreds of perpetrators of apartheid atrocities, and was it a result of secret political interference?

The questions have tainted the legacy of South Africa’s much-lauded Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC, which pushed for the prosecution of about 300 apartheid crimes for many years without success. But now a newly appointed investigator will have a chance to look for answers.

South Africa’s national prosecuting authority has asked an independent legal expert – former TRC commissioner Dumisa Ntsebeza – to review its handling of the TRC cases and to find out if there was any political obstruction. His probe could finally settle the allegations of interference that have long swirled around the apartheid-era cases that were stalled or blocked for more than two decades.

If the counsel finds any evidence of political interference, the evidence will be sent to national prosecutors and could lead to criminal investigations, the prosecuting authority promised in a statement on Friday.

Desmond Tutu, anti-apartheid leader and fighter for moral justice, dies at 90

The unresolved crimes were serious ones, including the killing and torture of anti-apartheid activists by police. Ten former TRC commissioners, in a letter in 2019, said the failure to prosecute these cases was “a shameful story of terrible neglect.”

The commissioners, including former TRC chairperson Desmond Tutu, who died in 2021, said the families of the victims feel deeply betrayed by the postapartheid government and deserve an apology for the injustice.

Several former South African prosecutors have given affidavits alleging that the postapartheid government – led by the African National Congress – improperly interfered in the cases and pressed officials to drop their investigations, preferring a “political solution” instead. There is some evidence that the ANC feared that its own members could be prosecuted for apartheid-era crimes if former police officers were prosecuted.

It is unclear if the newly appointed senior counsel, Mr. Ntsebeza, will have the time or power to uncover every aspect of the alleged political interference. He has been given just three months to complete his report, and much of his mandate will focus on how to ensure that future prosecutions are shielded from any potential interference.

But family members of apartheid victims welcomed the appointment as a step forward. “This is certainly welcomed and long overdue,” said Imtiaz Cajee, nephew of an anti-apartheid activist, Ahmed Timol, who was hurled to his death from the top of a police station in 1971.

Apartheid officials claimed Mr. Timol had thrown himself from a police station window, but his family spent decades pushing for the truth. An inquest in 2017 uncovered evidence that the police had tortured and killed him, and a murder charge was eventually filed against a retired police officer, Joao Rodrigues, who admitted he was in the room with Mr. Timol when he plunged to his death. Mr. Rodrigues died in 2021 before a trial could be held.

Mr. Cajee and other family members of the victims formed a network to seek prosecution of apartheid-era crimes, and they campaigned for justice for years, fearing the witnesses and survivors would die and the evidence would disappear.

The South African prosecuting authority eventually responded last year by launching formal investigations of 64 cases and appointing 40 investigators and 25 prosecutors to handle the cases. But until now, there has been no progress on probing the alleged political interference that stalled the cases.

“Families need answers and closure in their lifetime, as their loved ones pass on, as well as alleged perpetrators,” Mr. Cajee told The Globe and Mail. “History will judge the government of the day for failing to implement post-TRC prosecutions.”

South African opposition MP Brett Herron said the failure to prosecute the cases may have been a result of an unofficial agreement between leaders of the former apartheid regime and the postapartheid government.

“Victims’ families have been marooned without closure or any sense of justice, and the integrity of the TRC has been severely damaged,” Mr. Herron said in a statement. “The state must acknowledge the wrongfulness of its post-TRC inaction. Then it must explain why.”

The appointment of Mr. Ntsebeza to investigate the issues is “a brave one,” he said. “Ntsebeza was a senior TRC commissioner, who led the commission’s investigative unit, and is known as an independent thinker. He is also known to have been very critical of the state’s abandonment of the TRC process.”