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S.African families battle to uncover apartheid truth

Phillip Mabelane reading a news paper

Hammanskraal, South Africa | AFP | Time is running out for 95-year-old Phillip Mabelane.

For 40 years he has waited to discover the truth of how his son died at the hands of police during South Africa’s apartheid era.

Now the reopening of a similar case has given him hope that he may finally learn what really happened.

In February 1977, Mabelane heard that a detainee had died in unusual circumstances.

“I heard the news report that a detainee jumped from the 10th floor” of Johannesburg police headquarters, he told AFP, his back upright, his head shaven, sporting a white goatee.

A few hours later, two policeman were hammering on the door of his modest Soweto home.

The victim was his 23-year-old son Matthews, an anti-apartheid activist who had been arrested two weeks earlier as he crossed the Botswana border.

Since then, Phillip has been haunted by a single question: “How can someone jump from the 10th floor when you have done nothing bad?”

“Matthews loved life, he loved jazz, he loved music, he loved girls, he was a socialite. He could not have committed suicide,” said Lasch, 63, his brother. “Matthews was pushed.”

The Mabelanes never believed the official version which exonerated the police, as in all similar incidents of the era.

Between 1963 and 1990, human rights activists say 73 people died in police detention, sometimes in circumstances strikingly similar to those of Matthews’ case — for example Ahmed Timol.

In 1971, fellow activist Timol also plunged to his death from the 10th storey of the same police station.

This year, after battling for years, Timol’s family convinced prosecutors to re-open the inquest into the death — a legal first in South Africa.

The court probing the case will deliver its long-awaited verdict on October 12.

– ‘Timol inquest gave us hope’ –

The result could set an important precedent for other South African families whose loved ones also fell victim to the brutal apartheid system but, like the Mabelanes, have been denied the truth.

In the Timol case, witnesses described in detail to a Pretoria court the extreme violence meted out against opponents of the regime.

Torture at police headquarters included electric shocks, testicles crushed “like pepper” and jaws and skulls fractured by savage beatings.

Lasch listened attentively to the hearings from the public gallery, stunned by what he heard.

“There was a modus operandi” among the police, he said.

“The Timol inquest gave us hope… We never thought that it would happen, that the truth would come to the surface.”

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