Apartheid’s victims bring the crimes of South Africa’s past into court at last


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


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).

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.”

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.