Siphiwo Mthimkhulu, at 19 years old, was already in prison. Born in 1960 and raised in Zakhele township near Port Elizabeth, Mthimkhulu had joined the South African Students Movement in 1977, and was arrested in 1979. His crime was the possession of banned literature – his friends say he was caught with a copy of an inauguration speech by Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan-African Congress (PAC).

They would starve me for days. The food that would come, they would put cigarette ashes in my food and at times I just did not eat because I couldn’t eat what they were presenting to me

Mthimkhulu was part of a new wave of anti-apartheid activism in the 1970s, grounded in ideals of black empowerment and youth activism. The Black Consciousness Movement, best demonstrated by the life and works of Steve Biko, led to the political conscientisation of youth, who reinvigorated resistance that had largely moved into exile with the banning of the African National Congress (ANC) and PAC in 1960.

In June 1976, students across South Africa voiced their dissatisfaction with the poor quality education they were being offered, alongside the political oppression their families and communities faced. The 1976 Soweto Uprisings soon spread across the country, and the untimely death of Steve Biko in detention in 1977 only spurred young activists on. When the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) was formed in 1979, Mthimkhulu joined the Port Elizabeth branch as soon as he was released from jail.

Mthimkhulu’s political activities soon made him well-known to the Port Elizabeth security police, although the relationship between black activists and black policemen was complex. Captain Stanford Mene was a security policeman at the Port Elizabeth office during the 1970s and 1980s, and during his confidential Section 29 inquiry held during South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), explains how he used to view Mthimkhulu as a friend: “As they were moving to go to school in the morning we would give them a lift to school. That’s how the friendship started. We would chat and give them a lift”.

Mene also describes incidences where Siphiwo would have been detained by other security policemen: “Sometimes I would get there [the police station] and he would be in the office. I wouldn’t know who brought him there. I would greet him and we would chat. Sometimes we would have coffee together.”

At the time, it was common knowledge that COSAS was heavily invested in the liberation struggle, and affiliated to banned political parties, operating from exile. This helps explain why the security police kept such a close watch on Mthimkhulu and his movements. It was only a matter of time before matters came to head – and 1981 saw a confrontation that was to influence the course of Siphiwo’s life (and ultimately, end it far too early).

WATCH: The disappearance of Siphiwe Mtimkulu

In 1981, South Africa was celebrating twenty years of being proclaimed a Republic. The ANC in exile had arranged an “anti-celebration” campaign, alongside other organisations who were demonstrating against the commemorations. The ANC needed to distribute pamphlets explaining their motivations for calling for a three day stay-away in protest of the commemoration. Mthimkhulu was tasked with pamphlet distribution, and was soon on an arrest list authorised by Port Elizabeth security branch member Colonel du Plessis.

In May 1981, a security branch hunt for Mthimkhulu began. Mthimkhulu knew the police were after him, and he had already made arrangements to move away from Port Elizabeth with two friends, to the relative obscurity of Johannesburg. Monde Mditshwa, one of these friends, explained to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) how Siphiwo was caught for what would be his final stay in police custody. On 31st May 1981, about to leave for Johannesburg and already in hiding in Port Elizabeth, Siphiwo remembered that he owned a pair of boots that were kept with a friend. Concerned about having cold feet in Johannesburg, Siphiwo slipped out of his hiding place, supposedly to retrieve these boots.

He was spotted, and a shoot-out with the security police ensued. Siphiwo was shot in the arm, captured, and taken (via hospital) into custody. Captain Stanford Mene was present at the shoot-out, although he didn’t pull the trigger that downed Mthimkhulu. He recalls, fifteen years later, that his friendship with Mthimkhulu ended that night. This period of detention would be Mthimkhulu’s death sentence.
Mthimkhulu was detained for five months, and was released on 20th October 1981. He immediately complained of severe pain in his legs and feet, as well as being vocal on the kinds of torture he had had to endure while in custody. Joyce Mthimkhulu, Siphiwo’s mother, listened and recorded much of what Siphiwo said in 1981, and was able to re-tell her son’s torture at a Human Rights Violation hearing at the TRC, fifteen years later. She explained that Siphiwo would be tortured through electrocution and beating, as well as being almost suffocated to death with a wet towel.

Joyce goes on to explain the humiliation and suffering Mthimkhulu had to endure, from an account he himself has recorded: “They would also take me and throw bones to me as if I was a dog. They would starve me for days. The food that would come, they would put cigarette ashes in my food and at times I just did not eat because I couldn’t eat what they were presenting to me”.
But torture was not the only thing Mthimkhulu was subjected to. After his release, the pains in his legs got worse, and he soon presented other worrying symptoms. He complained of an “excruciating pain” in his stomach, and his limbs were swollen, lacking in circulation. He was admitted to Livingstone hospital on 26 October 1981, and swiftly transferred to Cape Town’s Groote Schuur hospital for more comprehensive tests.

In a closed Section 29 inquiry in 1996, Bathlakaze Tungata, a Port Elizabeth security policeman, recalls a time when he saw Siphiwo during his 5 month’s detention: “He looked like someone who was very drowsy, very sleepy and had no strength”. Doctors at Groote Schuur soon had a diagnosis for the Mthimkhulu family. Tests had shown that thallium was present in Siphiwo’s body, a rare, colourless and difficult to detect chemical. Siphiwo had been poisoned.

WATCH: The Killing of Siphiwe Mtimkulu and Topsy Madaka (Amnesty Hearing).

The USA Centre for disease control cites various symptoms that could indicate thallium poisoning, many of which Siphiwo underwent. These include vomiting and stomach pain, painful sensations in the hands and feet, unusual, painful, or burning sensations; muscle aches and weakness. Long-term neurological damage from thallium poisoning includes damage to the nerves that control head and neck movements, as well as difficulty walking. Mthimkhulu returned from Cape Town on 17th January 1982, in a wheelchair.

But Mthimkhulu was up for more of a battle than the apartheid state could have predicted. In December 1981, he sued the Minister for Law and Order (then Adriaan Vlok) for the torture he had been subjected to during his detention. And he followed this up, on 2 April 1982, by launching a civil claim for R150 000, for being deliberately poisoned with thallium while in detention. A judicial inquiry was set for 5 May 1982, to which at least four security policemen were subpoenaed.
The apartheid state denied all allegations of poisoning, but rumours abounded. Both Tungata and Mene were questioned at their Section 29 hearings about whether Mthimkhulu was poisoned – or what their thoughts were about Mthimkhulu’s illness. Both remembered hearing the rumour that Mthimkhulu had been poisoned by the security branch, but no definitive answer was forth-coming.

Mene highlighted the fact that he was always suspicious of his white colleagues, as they refused black policemen access to suspects in detention unless translation was required: “…when somebody is arrested they would not want us to be there. When the person was being interrogated we would be taken aside. They would only call us if they needed an interpretation…we would not know what had happened. They would just close their doors and we wouldn’t know what had happened or what is going to happen with the person”. Later, he reflects on his white colleagues: “They were cruel”.

But Mthimkhulu had pushed the apartheid state too far. On 14 of April 1982, Siphiwo Mthimkhulu, along with his friend and colleague, Topsy Madaka, disappeared. Topsy, an insurance salesman, was driving Mthimkhulu to a hospital check-up. Topsy’s car was soon discovered near a Lesotho border-post, and Bathlakaze Tungata states that his township informers said Mthimkhulu had fled – in a wheelchair – into exile. That was the last Joyce Mthimkhulu would hear about her son for the next fourteen years.
As with so many cases that came before South Africa’s TRC, Mthimkhulu’s disappearance led to revelation, and yet incomplete disclosure. An amnesty application for the abduction and murder of Siphiwo Mthimkhulu and Topsy Madaka was filed by Gideon Nieuwoudt, Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, Gerrit Erasmus and Hermanus du Plessis. According to their information, on 14 April 1982, Siphiwo and Topsy were lured to an abandoned police station called Post Chalmers, near Cradock. They were then drugged with coffee laced with sleeping tablets. Once they had passed out, they were shot, their bodies burned for six hours, through the night. The next morning, the ashes were thrown into the Fish River. The TRC deemed the confession of abduction and murder to be a full disclosure of the incident, and granted all the applicants amnesty.

How Siphiwo Mthimkhulu was poisoned and lost his ability to walk, his hair and his health remain a mystery. Claims of pills being administered to Siphiwo when he was incarcerated in 1981 were flatly denied by the security police during the TRC, even though allegations surfaced in 1998 that Steve Biko had also been administered this deadly poison. This issue was raised during the Special Hearing on Chemical and Biological Warfare, during the testimony of General Lothar Neethling, who was working in the Police Forensic Laboratories in the 1980s. He stated that he had requested the samples used by Groote Schuur to confirm a thallium poisoning diagnosis in the Mthimkhulu case, but unfortunately, the samples were damaged: “…it was sent by courier, he brought the sample to the laboratory. I wasn’t present there…I was on two weeks holiday [in December]… when they opened it there was no sample. Everything was dissolved in the cottonwool or the paper.”

He continues: “There was no way in which we could determine what the possible toxin could be, and there was not further way how we could obtain another sample, because, after enquiries, they said there was not person available[sic]”. That person had been dead for eight months already.

There was never any criminal liability assigned to the thallium poisoning of Siphiwo Mthimkulu, although the facts of his abduction and murder came to light. As South Africa celebrates Youth Day on 16 June 2015, stories like that of Siphiwo Mthimkhulu must re-invigorate the debate around South Africa’s process of truth recovery. The TRC was the start, not the end, of truth-telling in South Africa, and our country must engage with its unfinished business, if we are to lay the ghosts of the past to rest.

– By Robyn Leslie (SAHO)