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36 years later and still no justice for Cradock Four

Calata, Goniwe, Mhlauli and Mkonto were buried in Cradock on July 20, 1985, at a massive political funeral attended by thousands of people. File picture: African News Agency/ANA

Calata, Goniwe, Mhlauli and Mkonto were buried in Cradock on July 20, 1985, at a massive political funeral attended by thousands of people. File picture: African News Agency/ANA

Published Jun 27, 2021

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Today marks 36 years since the murder by the apartheid state of the four anti-apartheid activists, Matthew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkonto, Fort Calata and Sicelo Mhlauli, known as the Cradock Four, on June 27, 1985.

Goniwe and Calata were perceived by the apartheid state as threats and described as being “in the forefront of a revolutionary attack against the state”. The four activists were coming from a meeting of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in Port Elizabeth when they were intercepted at a police roadblock. They were abducted, tortured and their bodies were later burnt.

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While the bodies of Mhlauli and Mkonto were found soon afterwards near Port Elizabeth, Goniwe and Calata's bodies were only found days later in sea scrub bushland near Bluewater Bay.

There had long been rumours that Goniwe and Calata, in particular, were on a secret police hit list for their active participation in the struggle against apartheid in the Cradock area. Calata, Goniwe, Mhlauli and Mkonto were buried in Cradock on July 20, 1985, at a massive political funeral attended by thousands of people.

Although the apartheid state denied its involvement in the murder of the Cradock Four, a copy of the secret military signal suggesting that they be taken out and murdered was anonymously sent to the Transkei’s then Minister of Defence, Major-General Bantu Holomisa, who forwarded the document to Transkei's Director of Military Intelligence.

In 1987, a two-year inquest began into the deaths of the Cradock Four, and was presided over by Magistrate, E. De Beer, who, on February 22, 1989, concluded that Goniwe, Mhlauli, Mkonto and Calata had been killed by ‘unknown persons’.

A second inquest followed in 1992 after the New Nation newspaper published the top-secret military signal which read as follows: "Dit word voorgestel dat bogenoemde persone uit die saamelewing” which in effect meant the ‘"permanent removal from society" of Goniwe, Calata and Goniwe’s cousin, Mbulelo.

The second inquest was presided over by Judge Neville Zietsman, who, despite the overwhelming evidence available pointing to the complicity of several security branch officials in the murders, was only prepared to concede that security branch officials were responsible for the deaths of the Cradock Four.

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He only said a case of suspicion had been made out against SAP officers, including Colonel Snyman and Colonel Winter, and against SADF members, including Brigadier van der Westhuizen, Colonel du Plessis and Major General van Rensburg.

Following the establishment of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1996, six security branch officials, including Harold Snyman, Eric Alexander Taylor, Gerhardus Johannes Lotz, Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, Johan van Zyl and Hermanus Barend du Plessis, applied for amnesty for the murders of the Cradock Four.

It transpired that Snyman issued the order to have the four men killed, though Taylor confessed to the murders. Janse van Rensburg and van Zyl also testified that the four had been killed because they were seen as a threat to the government. All six perpetrators were refused amnesty.

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Minutes of the State Security Council on March 19, 1984, provided to the TRC, reveal that the State Security Council ordered the assassination of Goniwe and contradicted the evidence of the amnesty applicants who testified that the decision to kill Goniwe was only taken two or three weeks prior to his death. The amnesty committee found that the evidence of the amnesty applicants was vague and contradictory, particularly around the timing and source of the order to kill.

The hearings, in fact, revealed that in 1984, a military commander, General Joffel van der Westhuizen, sent a request to the State Security to “remove permanently from society as a matter of urgency” Goniwe, Calata and Mbulelo. A number of ministers were said to have been present at this meeting, including Barend du Plessis, who is alleged to have spoken in favour of killing Goniwe, using an Afrikaans word verwyder, or to ‘remove’, which effectively amounted to a “death warrant”.

Former president De Klerk is alleged to have also attended this meeting in his capacity as Internal Affairs Minister. De Klerk, when interviewed by the Guardian in 1999, told the Guardian that the meeting had merely decided to move Goniwe to another teaching post away from the town of Cradock. Critics and family members scoffed at the idea the security council spent its time discussing where to deploy black teachers.

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The National Prosecutorial Authority failed to indict the killers of the Cradock Four, as well as those ministers implicated present during the famous State Security Council meeting. Sadly, many of the perpetrators implicated in the Cradock Four murders have passed on. De Klerk also denied before the TRC that it was the policy of the apartheid government and the National Party that people should be murdered and argued that such an instruction would be against government’s policies.

The TRC found that the apartheid state was a criminal state and that it had established deaths squads to kill those it regarded as opponents of the state. Arguably, those ministers who were present at the State Security Council meeting could have command and superior responsibility for the deaths of the Cradock Four, which amount to crimes under international law.

In and around August last year, NPA representatives who had been briefed by family lawyers undertook to provide the Cradock families with a decision on whether they intended to indict by the end of August.

To date, this has not been done. As the families of the Cradock Four commemorate 36 years since the death of their loved ones, justice and accountability seem to be remote. As we speak, even more perpetrators are passing on.

Eric Winter is on his deathbed, former president de Klerk is ill with cancer, and as Dorothy Calata said in a recent interview, justice for the Cradock Four families is about the truth: “This is what they want”. Last year, Nyameka Goniwe, the widow of Goniwe, passed on waiting for justice. Surely the families deserve better, especially as their loved ones gave up their lives for freedom and our democracy.

* Yasmin Sooka is a human rights lawyer and former member of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission

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