On Thursday, 1 August 2019 the SPU community gathered to honour and remember Nokuthula Simelane through an exhibition on her life put together by our Heritage Studies students and to hear her story narrated by her sister Thembi Simelane-Nkadimeng, Executive Mayor of the Polokwane Local Municipality and the President of the SA Local Government Association.
In welcoming those present at the public lecture, Professor Jean Baxen, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic mentioned that the stories of the many women who sacrificed so much in the struggle against apartheid were seldom told. These are the stories and “rememberings” that SPU will be sharing during the month of August.
She also encouraged the young women present to exercise their agency through having self-respect and being respected. For the men present, she urged them to have agency through restraint and to respect all the women in their lives.
Dr Sibongile Masuku, a Lecturer in Heritage Studies at SPU and a friend of Nokuthula, gave a powerful performance of a poem about “a sister who ceased to exist”.
Thembi Simelane-Nkadimeng related the story of Nokuthula Simelane, a 22-year old woman, who was about to graduate from university in1983 when she was abducted by the Apartheid police, tortured and then disappeared.
She was an Umkhonto we Sizwe operative when she had travelled from Swaziland to South Africa to purchase her graduation gown but her movements were reported by a spy within her unit. She was intercepted at the Carlton Centre in Johannesburg sometime between 8 and 11 September 1983, taken to the police facility in Norwood, and kept there for one week while being interrogated and tortured in an attempt to turn her into a double agent – in what we now know was called Operation Kopdraai.
She was later moved to the notorious Vlakplaas where she was subjected to vicious torture such as electrical shocks to her breasts, submersion in a dam (also called waterboarding), and continually beaten until she was unconscious or lost control of her bodily functions. She was never seen again.
Her family has established that she was kept there for about six to eight weeks. Stronger men were broken in this process after about six days so it is a testament to Nokuthula’s strength and courage that she endured being brutalised for about 52 days. It is therefore not possible that she survived.
Thembi Simelane was nine years old when her sister disappeared – she remembers as a child the story in the family about a missing child. Her family has searched in earnest for Nokuthula from the time that those in exile began to return to South Africa and they realised that she was not amongst them. In 1996 they opened a case of disappearance.
The matter was then referred to the TRC who gave Nokuthula’s torturers amnesty for her abduction and kidnapping but not for the torture. The case of murder was referred to the NPA for further investigation.
Eventually, the family, and those of other families still searching for their disappeared children or spouses were forced to take legal action against the government for not following through on the referrals from the TRC.
Four members of the Soweto special branch of the apartheid police service were then charged and will be prosecuted for Nokuthula’s disappearance. The family agreed to their bail during which time one of the accused has died.
An interim order on the presumption of her death was issued and the court insisted that the accused in Nokuthula’s disappearance be given an opportunity to object. On 8 August 2019, on the eve of Women’s Day, the final order will be made on the presumption of death of Nokuthula Simelane.
Thembi says that in every war there are casualties but every soldier is dignified.
For Nokuthula’s family, for her mother and her surviving siblings, they need the closure that comes from performing the rituals for the dead – they need to find her remains. Unfortunately, they have resigned themselves to never getting that measure of respect for Nokuthula, because those that brutalised her and those that were complicit before and after her disappearance, continue to do so to her memory and to the family, so they will continue their pursuit of justice.