Defend Truth


Devils and angels crouching in the shadows of SA’s apartheid past and democratic future


Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

The ghost of apartheid brutality and torture haunts South Africa in new guises, but perhaps voters can exorcise it next year.

Perhaps Nelson Mandela did not intend to use “never” three times in his inaugural address to the nation in 1994, as the first democratically elected president.

“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another,” were Mandela’s famous words spoken from the Union Buildings.

History has a habit of repeating itself, and maybe this is the warning that lay at the heart of Mandela’s oft-quoted remark.

With the Bill of Rights and the Constitution in place, perhaps the elder statesman hoped we could break free from the cycles of violence, neglect and oppression.

Someone who would have lived through and survived the daily assault of the apartheid years is Ellem Francis, now a high court judge, who grew up classified coloured in Standerton, Mpumalanga, in the 1960s.

At the end of last month, Francis was asked to deliberate on a shameful matter involving the 2014 torture by Correctional Services officials of five Leeuwkop prison inmates.

A shameful first

He made a finding, the first under the Prevention and Combating of Torture of Persons Act 13 of 2013, known as the Torture Act, that the state is 100% liable for the torture.

“It is rather sad and disturbing that some of the events that took place during the dark days of apartheid continue to take place in our beloved country at correctional facilities where some people in charge have learnt from the former masters about how to treat inmates who do not toe the line,” Francis said.

The torture – during which guards gave inmates electric shocks, stripped them naked, assaulted them with batons and boots and set dogs on one of them – as well as the subsequent cover-up by officials, including medical personnel, was, said Francis, “abhorrent and reprehensible conduct”.

The inmates were also held in subhuman conditions, shackled in filthy single cells during their unlawful solitary confinement by Correctional Services officials.

“We come from a violent past where so many prominent and non-prominent activists were assaulted, tortured and killed during apartheid while they were under police custody,” Francis set out.

There had been cover-ups in which district surgeons “would lie about the severity of the injuries that the victims and deceased persons had suffered and would lie about the causes of death. Some examples that come up are … Steve Biko, Neil Aggett, Ahmed Timol, Simon Mthimkhulu, etc.”

And now we have done the same. The state has been found wanting – it has been found to have lied and to have tortured human beings.

Neither the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services nor the President has issued any statement on the landmark ruling.

The silence has been deafening.

The roots of justice

As a child, Francis recounted in a 2008 interview, he was beaten by police who had falsely accused him of stealing a bicycle. It was this moment that prompted his career in law, he recalled.

Apartheid was peaking when Francis completed his BA and LLB degrees in record time between 1979 and 1983 before joining the Legal Resources Centre as a human rights attorney.

He recalled one of a myriad matters that had to be dealt with at the time: the death in detention of Simon Mthimkhulu, a Sebokeng teenager and member of the ANC Youth League who was tortured by the police in June 1992.

“Simon Mthimkhulu was asthmatic, he was told to do some exercise in the toilet, which he did, and I think he then had a fit, and one of the policemen took a rock that they were using as a doorstop, and I think knocked him several times on his chest,” recalled Francis in the interview.

“He died and they went to go and dump his body not far from one of the hostels. The family then came to me … Well, they found him, I think, one or two days afterwards.”

It was Dr Jonathan Gluckman, a pathologist, who exposed that the South African Police had murdered most of the detainees he had examined who had died in custody.

Gluckman said Francis had grown “sick and tired of the police who were killing not just political people, but just ordinary people, you know, on a regular basis”.

The hollow governing party

When more than 70 people died in an inferno in a derelict inner-city Johannesburg building last week, the ANC, through its officials, including Lindiwe Zulu, the Minister of Social Development, invoked apartheid. It is the devil that bedevils the ANC, lurking around each corner and thwarting freedom, the governing party has continued to argue about each and every failure.

“Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the Shadow” – these lines from TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men swim to mind.

Zulu’s view immediately after the tragedy was: “Whether we like it or not, this is the result of apartheid that kept people apart in these conditions, and we are expected to change these conditions in 30 years. But where we have to take responsibility, we must take responsibility.”

The governing party can chase this ghost if it chooses, for, indeed, as Francis has found, it still finds expression, but now only in the ranks of a negligent and incompetent government riddled with corruption.

An election looms tantalisingly for citizens in 2024. Not only an election, but also a much wider political horizon that might just realise the extraordinary humanity of this country’s laws and Constitution.

Accountability comes through the law, but also through the ballot. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Denise Smit says:

    After 30 years of rule you also blame apartheid in line with the ANC polical slogan for 2024. You spend 90% of the article on the period before 1990 and a one liner on the 30 years thereafter. Everything in the 30 years after 1990 has been destroyed by the ANC. The railways, the best electricity system in the world , the education system where nobody getting a matric can read for meaning , write or do sums, closing of the nursing schools, closing of the agricultural colleges, SARS corrupted to the bone, the Scorpions closed, the NPA corrupted, the health system where it is now dangerous or unhealthy to go to, the universities were qualifications is bought and students are only interested in their subsidy and housing and the language they talk, the roads full of potholes and unmaintained, the police system where everybody is in danger and nobody is protected, the prison service which your description says all, the arms manufacturing service that has been corrupted to bancrupcy, and ….. and…. and. Not an objective article. Denise Smit

    • John Cartwright says:

      I must have been reading a different article.

      • Regine Fourie says:

        Please would those commentators accusing Ms Thamm of dredging up the old argument that all our present ills are because of apartheid, please read her piece more closely. She is not blaming everything on apartheid but is blaming the “hollow governing party” for blaming everything on apartheid — and doing nothing. As for this not being an “objective article” : it never purports to be that. It is an opinion piece.

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    Those who do not learn from the past are bound to repeat it. In this current time and 30 years past the ANC have created a monster mafia state, supported by private mafia, supported by corruption and nothing to do with ubuntu. so, blaming the past is the politician’s way of detracting from their own direct or indirect following of apartheid in a so-called democratic country under another name – reverse apartheid and one hellava screwed up country. Perhaps 2024, which we hope will see a change, may not be the change we hoped for but worse. Wonder what Alan Paton of “Cry the beloved Country” must be thinking! perhaps a reprint just changing names and places would do it!


    I fully agree with you Denise. Blaming apartheid ad nauseam to justify today’s ills only strengthens authorities & certain political parties to continue on their path of lawlessness.

  • Ben Harper says:

    I don’t think the anc and their fellow “freedom fighters” needed any help from the old apartheid structures when it came to torture, they pretty much had that taped by themselves. Would be interesting to soo what Mr Francis’ take is on the activities in the training camps such as Camp Quatro, far more and operatives were brutally attacked and murdered in those camps than by the apartheid security forces in SA- something we continue to see today with KZN having the highest levels of political assassination’s in the world

  • James Webster says:

    It is typical of Ms Thamm that she takes something topical ( such as the cANCer’s use of apartheid to defend its pathetic lack of action ) and twists it in such a way that she makes it appear as though the subject is to blame rather than the cANCer. No matter what subject she tackles, she absolves the cANCer of misconduct and sticks the knife into anyone who dares criticise the corrupt hordes.

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    “nobody getting a matric can read for meaning”
    Maybe the above is the case for some of the comments.

  • Peter Streng says:

    So many readers appear to have misinterpreted Ms Thamm’s article.
    My understanding is, while Judge Francis lamented the fact that some abhorrent old Apartheid practices (like torture) has been perpetuated in the democratic SA, ironically, when it suits cANCer, it blames Apartheid for its own short comings.

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