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It is encouraging that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) envisages an end to the process of investigating, and where necessary prosecuting, the perpetrators of apartheid-era crimes in three to five years.

The process has taken too long, denying justice to the distressed families of the victims, who for years have been pleading for action to be taken against perpetrators — mostly committed by members of the security police — who continue to enjoy the fruits of a free society.

It has been 24 years since the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) submitted its report, which contained the names of 300 alleged perpetrators who had either not applied for or who were denied amnesty. The agony of the family members of victims, and of many victims themselves, was exposed in grim detail during the proceedings of the TRC, which exposed the atrocities committed by the apartheid regime.

The failure to conclude this reckoning with the past leaves a gaping wound in our society, created through struggle against injustice, sacrifice and in many cases death. It is unfortunate that SA’s violent and crime-ridden society, and an NPA that is severely compromised by the state capture of the recent past, mean the system is overloaded with criminal cases.

However, it is incomprehensible that TRC-related matters have not been treated with the urgency they deserve. The long delay in finalising such cases has meant that crucial witnesses, and often the alleged perpetrators themselves, have either died or claim to be too mentally fragile to be able to follow court proceedings.

Documents have gone missing or have been destroyed. The same phenomenon hampered the hunt for Nazi war criminals. An example is the trial of Joao Rodrigues, accused of the death in detention of Ahmed Timol, which came to an abrupt halt in September 2021 when he died.

Adding to the delay in a number of cases has been the refusal of the SA Police Service to pay the legal fees of the accused. While it is obviously distasteful for a postapartheid government to have to pay for the legal defence of alleged perpetrators of apartheid crimes, it is established international law that the obligations of governments are passed on to their successors, however much their ideologies may differ. The refusal also means justice for the families of the victims is delayed or denied.

The NPA, which is making strides on many fronts in bringing those involved in corruption, state capture and fraud to book, is to be commended for the way it is tackling this apartheid legacy. It clearly wants to move as quickly as possible. Dedicated teams of prosecutors and Hawks investigators are working exclusively on some 129 TRC cases, some of them already in court. It is also reviewing some cases where decisions had been made not to proceed.

The intensity of this renewed focus by the NPA is evident in the referral since September last year of 64 new cases to the Hawks for investigation. There have already been some successes, dating back many years. A number of perpetrators have been convicted, notably Eugene de Kock for multiple murders, Ferdi Barnard for the murder of anti-apartheid activist David Webster, and Gideon Nieuwoudt for the Motherwell bombings.

In March the finding of the inquest into the death of trade unionist Neil Aggett, which exonerated the security police and ruled that he had committed suicide, was overturned. Judgments in the judicial review of the inquests into the deaths of Ernest Dipale and Hoosen Haffejee are awaited, and inquests into the deaths of Imam Abdullah Haron, Ntombikayise Kubheka, Sbo Phewa, Zama Sokhulu and James Mngomezulu are under way.

Progress has also been made in uncovering the whereabouts of missing people. The NPA’s Missing Persons Task Team has recovered the remains of 179 people, and in some cases the bodies of the deceased have been returned to their families.

More has to be done, but the achievements of late are heartening.

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