Fusi Mofokeng and Tshokolo Mokoena

Taryn Arnott writes about a momentous day in Justice Project history.

Photos by Pieter van Jaarsveld, Eleanor Momberg and Taryn Arnott

Fusi Mofokeng and Tshokolo Joseph Mokoena walked out of Kroonstad prison as free men on Saturday after spending 19 years in custody for a crime they did not commit.

When the TRC exonerated members of an ANC SDU for killing one policeman and attempting to murder another, Mofokeng and Mokoena, who had been convicted in terms of the doctrine of “common purpose”, refused to admit guilt as they had not even been present at the time of the murder. They were convicted mainly on the evidence given by a man, now dead, who later admitted giving false testimony as a result of pressure from the security police, coupled with the promise of a pay-off. Their appeal to the SCA was turned down.

After the pair attempted to plead their innocence to many authorities over the years, including Thabo Mbeki and Desmond Tutu, Jomo Nyambi – chairman of the Select Committee on Petitions and Members Legislative Proposals – became aware of their plight. In 2009, the Justice Project received a letter from Mofokeng and began an initiative to have the men released.

Justice Project stalwart Jeremy Gordin began a media campaign shedding light on their plight and Carte Blanche had soon run a widely-viewed documentary on Mofokeng and Mokoena.

While the exoneration of the men is still the ultimate goal, it became clear that having them released on parole in light of the 2010 Van Vuuren Judgement would be a speedier process. The judgment says that all lifers sentenced before March 1994 could now be considered for parole.

But the finer details of the judgment were only ironed out on Thursday 31 March in the Consitutional Court, after which Correctional Services Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula issued instructions that Mofokeng and Mokoena be released on Saturday.

The Justice Project, family of the men and media gathered early on Saturday morning to watch Mofokeng and Mokoena step out from the high fences of Medium C.

Mokoena lifted a fist in the air as he descended the steps from the prison alongside Mofokeng, who was dressed in a new pinstripe suit which had been given to him for the occasion. The two embraced their families and enthralled the media before being taken home to Bethlehem by Correctional Services.

This victory for Mofokeng and Mokoena, though not an exoneration, is a great triumph for the Justice Project and Nyambi, who have been fighting for their freedom for two years.

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