DAILY MAVERICK 168

Hawks turn to former cops in their quest to investigate old apartheid crimes

By Shaun Smillie 17 October 2020

Former apartheid police officer Joao Rodrigues (left). (Photo: Greg Nicolson.) Ahmed Timol (right), who was murdered in 1971.

Some of the 200 advertised jobs are to investigate crimes that were identified by the TRC.

First published in Daily Maverick 168

They might be sporting a couple of grey hairs and perhaps they are not as fast as they used to be, but these cops could soon be injecting new life into old apartheid crime investigations.

The Hawks, for the first time, have called on former police officials to rejoin the service, so as to bolster their investigative capacity. Last month, 200 jobs were advertised within the Hawks, which were open to former members of the SAPS.

Spokesperson for the Hawks Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi explained that the 200 posts were across various departments within the crime fighting organisation. Some of the jobs, however, were to investigate crimes identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

One post advertised is for a chief investigator at the level of a brigadier.  

The successful applicant would sign on to a three-year contract. The vacancies were not open to those over retirement age.

“These posts were advertised in September, so some of them might even have started work by now,” says Mulaudzi.  

These investigators will be tackling cases that stretch back decades, and in some cases they will be investigating murders where no bodies were ever found.

Cold cases have a reputation of being hard to crack, but as what was shown with the Ahmed Timol case, alleged perpetrators can be charged and even though years have passed, they can still end up in the dock.  

“Well, it’s not rocket science. It is easy to solve these cases, it’s just a matter of putting things together,” says one former SAPS investigator, who preferred not to give his name.

There is a lot of evidence still out there, he explains, including original documents, that are important to building cases.  

Some of this paperwork was generated by the apartheid regime and now sits in the South African History Archive. More recent documentation came out of the TRC and amnesty hearings.

“If, for example, you have ballistic evidence or other physical evidence at a crime scene, this can support what was said in an amnesty application,” the investigator explains. “Let’s say the physical evidence shows that a bullet was found at the scene and the applicant says I used that calibre firearm, all that is corroboration.”

Also helping in these investigations are the advances in science and forensics that have happened since these crimes were perpetrated.

In the Timol case, motion experts were able to show that the young activist was unlikely to have jumped to his death, as the state claimed, from what was then the 10th floor of the John Vorster Police Station building, in Johannesburg.  

“Experts were able to show that the trajectory of someone jumping out of the 10 windows would have ended up somewhere else. And that clearly what we saw was someone being pushed out, or killed first and the body thrown out,” says Yasmin Sooka, of the Foundation for Human Rights.

However, the biggest problem facing those investigating these crimes is time.

The perpetrators, witnesses and those victim’s families, desperately seeking closure, are dying.  

I think it’s important symbolically that there is a formal case against these people [apartheid criminals]. That it does bring some sense of justice and closure to the families. And also it sends out a message to people who might be contemplating these crimes now, that the long arm of the law is very long.

If the Timol inquest had been held just a couple of years earlier, Sooka believes they might have been able to charge at least one of the main interrogators who tortured the activist, Captain Johannes Gloy, with murder. He died in 2012.

Instead retired Security Branch clerk Joao Rodrigues has been charged with Timol’s murder. He was the last person to have seen Timol alive.

Rodrigues might be a murder suspect but his path to a trial is being blocked by what some are calling delay tactics.

Earlier this week it was revealed that Rodrigues submitted an application to the Supreme Court of Appeal claiming that he had been granted amnesty in the past.

This has been ridiculed by those involved in getting justice for Timol’s family. They are calling it a stalling ploy, similar to the so-called Stalingrad defence used by former president Jacob Zuma in his arm’s deal case.

“The only time you could receive amnesty was through the Truth Commission’s committee,” states Sooka.

Imtiaz Cajee, Timol’s nephew, believes the reason Rodrigues and his defence team can do this, is because the State is footing his legal fees. As a former policeman, Rodrigues is entitled to the State paying his legal fees.  

Through a Promotion of Access to Information Act request, Cajee said that he had found that the Department of Justice had spent R3.8-million on Rodrigues and his criminal trial had yet to start.

“I have now requested the minister of justice to provide a full breakdown of the costs,” says Cajee.

“Taxpayers are covering his legal costs, so he has no financial constraints on his side.”

Other TRC cases have also become bogged down in the courts.  

“One of the cases we are working on is the Cradock Four, and we are trying to get the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to move on this case, and if they don’t we are going to have to decide on what action we take,” says Sooka.

This week the murder trial of activist Nokuthula Simelane, who disappeared in 1983, was set to begin. But the NPA again wrote to Simelane’s family to tell them that they were not ready to proceed.

While the NPA has its problems, the Hawks say they are making progress.

“These TRC cases are moving along,” says Mulaudzi.

Criminologist Gareth Newham, of the Institute for Security Studies welcomed the Hawks move of employing former police officers. The advantage, he says, is that they come already trained and they will play an important mentoring role, too.  

“There’s been a decline in the number of experienced investigators, many of the better ones left or went to the private sector. And there has been a real problem with investigations. Take, for example, murder and robbery; detection rates have declined quite substantially since 2012,” he says.

For Newham and many others, the hope is that these perhaps silver-haired investigators will be tackling some of South Africa’s most notorious crimes and solving them.

“I think it’s important symbolically that there is a formal case against these people [apartheid criminals]. That it does bring some sense of justice and closure to the families. And also it sends out a message to people who might be contemplating these crimes now, that the long arm of the law is very long,” says Newham. DM/DM168

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