On 21 August 2023, the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg will begin the trial for the murders of Eustice ‘Bimbo’ Madikela, Peter “Ntshingo” Matabane, Fanyana Nhlapo, and the attempted murder of Zandisile Musi. These four anti-apartheid activists, known collectively as the ‘COSAS 4’, were members of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS).
Christiaan Sebert Rorich and Thlomedi Ephraim Mfalapitsa stand accused in this case. They face charges of kidnapping, murder, and crimes against humanity—including murder under the apartheid system—as stipulated by Section 232 of the Constitution. The allegations state they unlawfully and deliberately killed the three students as part of a systematic effort to eliminate political adversaries of the apartheid regime.
This trial is both historical and significant – it will be the first time that charges under international law, specifically the crime against humanity of murder and the crime against humanity of apartheid, will be brought against two individuals in a South African court. To the best of our knowledge, it is also the first time that charge of the crime against humanity of apartheid is being brought anywhere in the world. These charges are being introduced under Section 232 of the Constitution, which recognises customary international law as law in the Republic, unless it is inconsistent with the Constitution or an Act of Parliament.
Although the masterminds behind the killing of the COSAS 4 – including Jan Carel Coetzee, Willem Frederick Schoon and Abraham Grobbelaar – were refused amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1999 for the killing of three of the COSAS activists, the democratic state failed to hold them accountable. They went to their graves without having faced justice.
Christiaan Sebert Rorich and Thlomedi Ephraim Mfalapitsa were also denied amnesty by the TRC in 1999. Twenty-one years later, in 2021 with the assistance of the Foundation for Human Rights and Webber Wentzel attorneys (who represented some of the COSAS 4 families at the time), were the families able to enter substantive discussions with the SAPS Directorate for Priority Crimes Investigations and the National Prosecuting Authority which led to the prosecution of Mfalapitsa (accused 1) and Rorich (accused 2) in August 2021. All the other suspects are deceased. Both accused are well advanced in age.
Since the indictment of two accused in 2021, the matter has faced several challenges and postponements, including litigation opposing the SAPS’s refusal to pay the reasonable legal costs of Rorich’s defense. The high court found that as a former officer of the Security Branch of the South African Police, Rorich is entitled to state support. By refusing to cover the cost of Rorich’s defence, the SAPS was contributing to continued delays in the commencement of the trial.
The 22-year long wait for justice and closure has caused immeasurable harm to the families of the COSAS 4. Zandile Musi, the only survivor of the 1982 attack passed away in 2021 without seeing justice done.
The commencement of the trial will be the first huge step for the family members in seeking justice and closure over the murder and injury of their loved ones.
Eustice ‘Bimbo’ Madikela, Peter “Ntshingo” Matabane, Fanyana Nhlapo and Zandisile Musi were students from Kagiso, a township in Gauteng, and members of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS), an organisation which was affiliated with the then banned African National Congress (ANC). They are collectively known as the COSAS 4. Madikela, Matabane and Nhlapo were killed, and Musi was seriously injured on 15 February 1982 after they were lured by two ‘askaris’ (informers), Joe Mamasela and Thlomedi Ephraim Mfalapitsa, to an old pump house in which Security Branch officers had planted explosives. Mfalapitsa had previously been a member of the ANC’s military branch, uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) and was a close friend of Musi’s brothers. Unbeknown to Musi, Mfalapitsa had later turned ‘askari’ and joined the South African Police (SAP) as a Security Branch officer. Thinking that Mfalapitsa was still with the ANC, Musi had informed him that he and his three comrades wished to join the ANC in exile for military training. Jan Carel Coetzee and Willem Frederick Schoon (both now deceased) ordered Mfalapitsa to lure Musi and the other three students to a pump house at a mine near Krugersdorp, under the false pretence that he intended to provide them with military training.
Some of the Security Branch officers involved in the murder of Madikela, Matabane and Nhlapo, and the serious injury of Musi, appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Carel Coetzee, Willem Frederick Schoon, Abraham Grobbelaar, Christiaan Siebert Rorich and Ephraim Mfalapitsa were denied amnesty. The case is one of those which was referred by the TRC to the NPA for investigation and prosecution. Although he did not apply for amnesty, Mamasela testified in camera at a Section 29 investigative hearing before the TRC. In August 2021, Mfalapitsa and Rorich were charged with kidnapping and murder, and charges of crimes against humanity of murder and the crime against humanity of apartheid were subsequently added to the indictment in November 2021.