The funeral of the Cradock Four. File picture: Independent Media Archives
The funeral of the Cradock Four. File picture: Independent Media Archives

One step closer to justice for the Cradock Four

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Jul 23, 2021

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The wheels of justice may turn very slowly, but eventually there is a reckoning, even if many of the perpetrators of apartheid era crimes have passed on.

What is ground breaking in the court papers that were filed in the high court, Gauteng division, this week by the relatives of the Cradock Four, is that 12 of the 16 respondents are senior apartheid generals, heads of the security branch and members of the Cabinet.

While the application is seeking relief from the National Director of Public Prosecutions, the SAPS commissioner, and ministers of justice and police, (in that it compels the NDPP to make a prosecutorial decision) it lists some of the apartheid regime’s top brass as potential suspects.

It has been more than 35 years since the Cradock Four were abducted, tortured, murdered and their bodies desecrated and burnt beyond recognition. But no one in the chain of command, who were involved in the decision making, planning and who gave the orders to murder the Cradock Four, have been prosecuted.

In the early 1990s, the Zietsman Inquest found the apartheid security forces were responsible for the murders, but no action was taken. Six of the killers were denied amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – but since then no action was taken against them, and all the killers on the scene have since died.

According to the court papers, at a State Security Council (SSC) meeting on March 19, 1984, Barend Du Plessis, then minister of black education, called for the “removal” of Cradock teachers, Matthew Goniwe and Fort Calata. The then education minister, Frederick Willem de Klerk (who became president in 1989), was in attendance at that meeting, as was Neil Barnard, the then director of the National Intelligence Service, Johan van der Merwe, who became the commanding officer of the Security Branch, and Samuel De Beer, the former deputy minister of education.

Some 48 hours later, on March 21, Craig Williamson, the former head of Security Branch Intelligence, sent operatives Jacob Jan Hendrick (Jaap) van Jaarsveld and Bassie Bouwer to assess the most appropriate way of killing Goniwe and Calata. Van Jaarsveld allegedly proposed that Goniwe be “taken out” on a deserted road. Williamson did not apply for amnesty for the Cradock Four.

The court papers further allege that on June 6, 1985 at the SSC’s Joint Security Action Committee meeting, chaired by deputy minister of law and order Adriaan Vlok, recommendations were sought on what to do about Goniwe. The court papers state that on June 7, Lieutenant General Christoffel van der Westhuizen ordered Colonel Lourens du Plessis to send a secret signal to Major General Johannes van Rensburg, recommending the urgent “permanent removal from society" of Goniwe, Calata and Mbulelo Goniwe (the nephew of Matthew Goniwe). Van der Westhuizen never applied for amnesty for the murder of the Cradock Four.

Those involved in the planning of the murders included Van der Westhuizen, Du Plessis, Colonel Harold Snyman, Van Rensburg, Major Herman Barend du Plessis (SB Unit Commander for Eastern Cape Black Areas) and Eric Winter (the head of the Cradock SB). All were denied amnesty for their role in the killings.

On June 27, the Cradock Four were apprehended on a deserted road, as recommended by Van Jaarsveld a year earlier, and murdered. According to the autopsy reports, Matthew Goniwe and Sicelo Mhlauli died from multiple stab wounds, Fort Calata from a stab wound in the heart, and Sparrow Mkonto from a gunshot wound to the head and a stab wound to heart.

The four activists devoted their lives to resisting the pernicious system of apartheid. The historic compromise that gave birth to the new South Africa demanded that those perpetrators denied amnesty, or who did not apply for amnesty, would face prosecution.

This has not happened, and there has been no justice for Fort Calata, Matthew Goniwe, Sicelo Mhlauli and Sparrow Mkonto, as well as many others killed by the apartheid regime.

After decades of pleading for justice, it is understandable that the relatives of the Cradock Four filed court papers this week in order to compel the NDPP to take a prosecutorial decision on their kidnapping torture, and murder, and to do so within 60 days.

This should never have been a burden that the families of apartheid victims who were murdered had to bare. But given the foot dragging of the prosecuting authority who have sat on their hands for years, the families had no option but to take their fight to the courts, just as the family of Ahmed Timol and Neil Aggett were forced to do.

It is unacceptable for investigations to drag on indefinitely while witnesses and suspects grow old and die. As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied.

* Ebrahim is Independent Media Group Foreign Editor.

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