Refusal to lie costs 19 years

Two friends stepped out into the new South Africa for the first time yesterday after 19 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Rowan Philp writes for the Sunday Times.

TWO friends stepped out into the new South Africa for the first time yesterday after 19 years in prison for a crime they did not commit.

And Fusi Mofokeng and Tsokolo Mokoena had only been in jail because they refused to lie

In 1993 the trial court found that the pair were not even in the vicinity of a shootout in which a policeman was killed and another injured — but nevertheless convicted them in terms of the controversial doctrine of “common purpose”.

Mofokeng, now 44, and Mokoena, now 49, from Bethlehem in the Free State, were given life sentences because, it was claimed, they had associated with four members of an ANC self-defence unit who had carried out the attack.

Some of the ANC cadres had been in a house in which Mofokeng had later stayed.

The four SDU members were later freed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for confessing to the shooting — but Mokoena and Mofokeng remained in jail for another 12 years, because amnesty was only granted to those who admitted wrongdoing.

Yesterday, a release signed by the Minister of Correctional Services, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, allowed the pair to walk out of the Kroonstad Prison, sparking celebrations among ANC supporters, justice activists and those relatives they remember.

Mofokeng said it was “sad” that the truth had not set them free. Instead, the pair were paroled, thanks to a confirmation by the Constitutional Court on Thursday of its earlier ruling that all “lifers” sentenced before March 1 1994 would be considered for parole.

The Constitutional Court judgement paves the way for the possible release of 385 prisoners serving life sentences for murder, rape and robbery.

As members of a Bethlehem activist group applauded and shouted “All right! All right!”, half a dozen family members shyly went to greet the free men.

Melita Mofokeng, 38, Mofokeng’s girlfriend, who has waited for 18 years — quietly shook the prisoner’s hand, before demanding, and receiving, a kiss from a beaming Mofokeng.

The police clerk confessed to the Sunday Times that she had had a son with another man five years after Mofokeng’s imprisonment — “and he forgave me! He forgave me!”

Mofokeng told the Sunday Times: “I do not regret sticking with the truth, no matter the cost. I am a little bit angry, but there’s nothing I can do about it. My youth has been spent. I was not allowed to attend my mother’s funeral, my brother’s funeral, my father’s funeral. My birthdays, Christmases, holidays, all stolen.”

Mokoena was also unable to attend his parents’ funerals.

Policeman Lourens Oosthuizen, 21, was killed in the 1992 roadside shootout; his colleague, Herman Joubert, was permanently disabled, and two SDU members also died.

Jeremy Gordin, head of the Wits Justice Project, said the saga proved that the justice system could not cope with prisoners who were innocent. “This is a parole, not an exoneration — and we’ll gladly take it — but, clearly, they are innocent. ”

Last year, Enver Daniels, chief state legal adviser, told the petitions committee for the National Council of Provinces there were doubts that the principle of “common purpose” even applied to the two men.

The sole witness to give evidence against the two friends had publicly recanted his testimony, and the SDU members told the TRC the two had had nothing to do with their activities.

The petitions committee interviewed Mofokeng and Mokoena in jail about their application for release.

Chairman Jomo Nyambi said: “Our whole committee was in tears after we listened to them — they are the most inspirational people; they are not even bitter, let me tell you.”

Shocked by the story, members of the delegation tried to press money on the friends. But the pair were so “incredibly honest” they refused to accept the cash, even though no warders were present, as it was against prison regulations.

Nyambi said the families of the victims had supported their release.

Mofokeng and Mokoena said they would spend last night with what was left of their families in Bethlehem. Mofokeng quipped: “I have no plans.”

But the only jobs the pair are likely to get are back in prison.

Nyambi said: “Mokoena now has an N4 (welder’s certification), Mofokeng has got his matric and is trained as a prison tutor — they could be employed by correctional services.

“We will engage with (potential employers). We won’t let them down, I can even dig into my own pocket. But I believe they can make a movie or a book and motivate people.”

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About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

One Response to Refusal to lie costs 19 years

  1. Che-Man Mao says:

    There are many, many other cases of a similar nature. God bless the two gentlemen, now let’s work on freeing the remaining ones. It is the right thing to do.

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