I welcome the decision of the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) to prosecute some of the suspects implicated in the kidnapping, torture and murder of the young freedom fighter, Nokuthula Simelane, in 1983. It is a most significant and historic decision.

The questions I ask are: What has taken them so long? 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 it take a substantial application to the High Court to get the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) and the police to do their jobs? Why did successive South African governments take extraordinary steps to obstruct the course of justice?

In 1983 Nokuthula was a twenty-three years old university graduate and was a courier for Umkhonto we Sizwe (“MK”), the armed wing of the African National Congress, moving between Swaziland and South Africa. She was betrayed by one of her own and was abducted and brutally tortured by the Security Branch of the former South African Police. Nokuthula was never seen again. We know from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings that she suffered terribly at the hands of the Security Branch. We know that she refused to collaborate with the forces of Apartheid. For this she paid the ultimate price.

I understand that a police docket was opened in 1996, and that the amnesty process in relation to the Simelane case was finalised in 2001. Recommendations on more than 300 cases for prosecution, including this matter, were made to the NPA in 2002. Less than a handful of these cases have been pursued. The civil case brought by the Simelane family in 2015 to compel the NPA to take action reveals that almost immediately after the recommendations were made, the government took steps to close down truth and accountability.

In 2004 the government established a secret task force to make recommendations to effectively guarantee impunity for those not granted amnesty. Amendments to the prosecutions’ policy, providing for an effective back door amnesty, were thwarted by civil society litigation. The Priority Crimes Litigation Unit (PCLU), responsible for these matters, has been deliberately starved of resources. The evidence supplied by the former NDPP, Advocate Vusi Pikoli, explains how his independence was compromised by politicians – and how unwarranted interference suppressed the so–called political cases of the past.
I have long said that there remains “unfinished business” from the TRC. The tardy and limited payments of reparations to victims of human rights violations eroded the very dignity that the commission sought to build. The fact that the government did not prosecute those who were refused amnesty or failed to apply for amnesty, undermined those who did. The proposal of a once-off wealth tax as a vehicle for those who had benefited from the past to contribute to the future was stillborn.

While I welcome the decision of the NPA to proceed in the case of Nokuthula Simelane, I emphasise that the decision is long overdue, and only occurred because the family sought relief from the High Court compelling the NPA to act. Hopefully it marks a turning point for the NPA. I urge the NPA to double its efforts in pursuing all outstanding cases from the past with vigour. Other families should not have to go to court to secure justice.
I maintain that healing is a process. How we deal with the truth after its telling defines the success of the process. And this is where South Africa has fallen tragically short. By choosing not to follow through on the commission’s recommendations, government not only compromised the commission’s contribution to the process, but the very process itself.

The commission was a beginning, not an end. It united South Africans around a common fire for the first time in history to hear the stories of our past, so that we could begin to understand each other – and ourselves – and take forward the job of developing the compassionate and just society for which so many had suffered and laid down their lives.


Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This statement was distributed for the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation by Oryx Media.