In recognition of the International Week of the Disappeared, Khulumani Support Group honours those who disappeared, brings the story to light of one who returned, and calls upon the government to stop the gross human rights violation of enforced disappearance from ever occurring again.
Mr. Zitha was a 26-year-old freedom fighter when he was kidnapped from the home he lived in with his wife and two young children. In 1984, Mr. Zitha was in exile in Lesotho, like many others activists who opposed the Apartheid regime. Aware that he was about to be expelled by Lesotho, Mr. Zitha scheduled a meeting with a Chief Immigration Officer from Geneva. Mr. Zitha would never attend this meeting. The morning before the meeting was scheduled, a group of men coaxed Mr. Zitha out of his home by telling him they had come to take him for a drink. By the time he felt in his gut that something was not right, it was too late.
Mr. Zitha’s captors drugged him and took him to police cells in Ladybrand, just across the border of Lesotho. No one knew where Mr. Zitha was. He had vanished. His captors forced him to sign in and out of the cells each day under different names, so he would not appear in the register, ensuring that no one could find him. Fortunately, Mr. Zitha and his wife prepared for this kind of situation. Mr. Zitha had been receiving threats that if he did not cease his political activism, he would be killed. When he did not return home, his wife knew to immediately contact the United Nations and US Embassy offices in Lesotho.
Mr. Zitha remained in captivity for three months, where he was severely and brutally tortured. Confident in the precautions they had taken to ensure that no one would ever find him, Mr. Zitha’s captors eventually released him to house arrest. However, this choice would come to save Mr. Zitha’s life. The UN and US Embassy were able to help Mr. Zitha escape from house arrest. Unable to stand, eat, or even speak, Mr. Zitha was in such poor condition that he was not initially reunited with his family for fear that they would be traumatized. He was first taken back to Lesotho, but when his condition appeared to worsen, he was flown to Zimbabwe, and then to Kenya for an opportunity to convalesce. A month later, Mr. Zitha and his family finally found safety in the United States.
Mr. Zitha’s story is one of strength and hope. His story is also one of pain, suffering, and injustice. His story is a drop in the ocean of victims who never received reparations for the gross human rights violations committed against them. His story is one that he has been trying to tell for years. But his attempts have been met with resistance every time. Mr. Zitha tried to report his story to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by making a written statement, but the TRC never contacted him. Twenty-three years after the end of Apartheid, Mr. Zitha has still not received reparation for his kidnapping and torture. Yet, to this day, he still suffers immensely. Mr. Zitha is hospitalized several times a year for conditions which are the result of the severe torture he experienced. Today he still suffers from the side effects of being poisoned, seizures caused by his head injuries, and mental health conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He has spent eight years back in South Africa, away from his family, trying to receive financial assistance from the government to pay for his health care.
Mr. Zitha deserves reparation for the horrible crimes committed against him. Families still searching for the whereabouts or remains of their loved ones need to be given peace and justice. In a country where so many political activists were subject to enforced disappearance during the Apartheid regime, it is necessary that the government ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The widespread or systematic practice of enforced disappearance constitutes a crime against humanity under international law. The Convention calls upon States to make enforced disappearance an offence under criminal law. Further, the Convention acknowledges that families of the disappeared are victims. It affords families the right to report suspected disappearances without being subject to intimidation, the right to an impartial investigation, and the right to receive certain information. The ratification of the Convention is an important step toward reconciling unresolved cases of the disappeared. Ratification will help families identify the truth about their loved ones who never returned.
It is a serious concern that the South African Government has not responded to requests made by the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances to visit the country. The Working Group’s 2015 Report indicates that the Working Group sent a request to visit South Africa on 28 October 2014. The report further indicated that as of 15 May 2015, the Working Group had not received a response from South Africa. The last reminder had been sent to South Africa by The Working Group on 27 November 2015. The Working Group’s 2016 Report indicates that as of 18 May 2016, South Africa had still not responded to the Working Group’s requests for a visit. Khulumani calls on the South African government to initiate the process of signing, and then ratifying the International Convention to Protect All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. This will open the way to the domestication of the convention in South African law as an important development in a country with a painful history of hundreds of unresolved enforced disappearances.
We must ensure that no person in South Africa is subjected to an enforced involuntary disappearance ever again.