To: All Media
ATT: News Editors, Human Rights Reporters
For Immediate Release
27 July 2023
Security Branch of the South African Police responsible for the Death of Ernest Moabi Dipale at the John Vorster Square Police Station in 1982
Statement by the South African Coalition for Transitional Justice & the Foundation for Human Rights
The South African Coalition for Transitional Justice and the Foundation for Human Rights welcome the judgment handed down by Judge Makume in the High Court of South Africa, Gauteng division, in the matter of The Re-opened Inquest into the death of Ernest Moabi Dipale on the 11th of July 2023. The case concerns the death of a 21 year old political activist in police custody in Johannesburg in 1982. The key findings of the judgment were that Ernest Dipale did not commit suicide but that the Security Branch of the South African Police (SAP) stationed at John Vorster Square were responsible for his death. Although the court was unable to name with certainty who killed Dipale, it identified Security Branch officers Nicholas Johannes Deetlefs and Joe Mamasela as key suspects whose involvement should be further investigated, in particular their movements on 7-8 August 1982.
The initial 1983 inquest
The late Ernest Dipale was a resident of Soweto who was detained by the security police on the 5th of August 1982 in terms of Section 6 of the Terrorism Act of 1967. At approximately 01h30 on the 8th of August 1982 he was found dead in his cell at the John Vorster Square police station, in Johannesburg. At the time of his death, Dipale was 21 years old.
A post-mortem was carried out by Prof NJ Scheepers on the 24th of September 1982, who found that Dipale death was attributed to a ‘hanging’. The formal inquest into the death of Dipale was finalised on the 1st of June 1983 at the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court. That first inquest court found that no one was criminally responsible for his death.
The reopened 2021 inquest
Although the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the police were unable to trace the original or copy of the criminal case docket and the initial inquest record, on the basis of the other available evidence Judge Makume established the following facts surrounding Dipale’s death.
After the 1976 Soweto student uprising, the deceased’s sister, Joyce Dipale, and her husband Roller Masinga left South Africa for Botswana to join the then banned African National congress (ANC). Following his graduation as a mechanic, Dipale began frequenting Botswana to visit his sister, which caught the attention of the Security Branch of the South African Police (SAP). The security police would occasionally detain Dipale in relation to his sister’s and her husband’s activities in exile.
Sometime in the middle of 1981 Joe Mamasela a former ANC cadre was persuaded to become a double agent to work with the SAP Security Branch. During the same year, Dipale was detained and assaulted when entering South Africa, including by Mamasela. In the reopened inquest, Mamasela denied his involvement in the assault, which was, however, confirmed by another askari Almond Nofomela.
Judge Makume also noted that around midnight on the 26th of November 1981 a contingent of security branch officers, including the askari Mamasela crossed into Botswana and went to a house occupied by ANC members, including Joyce Dipale and Roller Masinga. The security officials shot at members in the house, but none died. Joyce Dipale was injured, which was subject of her testimony at the reopened inquest. Mamasela, too, confirmed the attack in the reopened inquest. Mamasela further stated that the intention was to kill Roller Masinga who had by then made his way to Zambia. The court noted that, at the time of this incident, it would appear that Dipale was in detention. Ernest Dipale was released from detention in March 1982 and took up employment as a clothing salesman.
On the 4th of Augus 1982, Dipale and his childhood friend Koapeng were shot at by members of the Security Branch including Deetlefs and Mamasela when driving in Soweto but they escaped unharmed.
On the 5th of August 1982, Dipale and Koapeng were arrested at work. Koapeng testified that while in detention, he never saw Dipale alive again as they were in different cells. During the interrogation, Koapeng denied having been involved with the then banned ANC but did confirm to security officials that Dipale had some ties. Koapeng was later released on 6th August 1982.
Dipale was interrogated by Nicholas Johannes Deetlefs, who is also alleged to have been implicated in the assault and murder of Dr Neil Aggett.
Following his arrest, Deetlefs took Dipale to various places in Soweto and Krugersdorp, where Dipale pointed out dead letter boxes set up by the ANC. On 7th August 1982, Dipale made a confession before a Magistrate Botha that he, indeed, had ties to the ANC. Dipale died in detention on the 8th of August 1982.
The court noted that there was no indication as to which of the police officers were on duty at John Vorster Square security police holding cells from 18h00 on the 7th of August 1982 up to the early morning of the 8th of August 1982. The court also noted that there was no evidence as to who discovered the body of Dipale and under what circumstances.
The 2023 Court Judgment
In reaching its conclusion that Dipale did not commit suicide but was killed by the SAP Security Branch the court relied on the following reasoning. The evidence by the blanket manufacturer, which Dipale had allegedly used to hang himself, points to the fact that Dipale would not have been able to tear the blankets with his bare hands since the blankets were very heavy and if one had teared it will show frayed or threads. There were no sharp objects found in the cell.
In addition, as a result of his height, Dipale would have had to use a chair or a stool to tie the blanket at the upper most portion of the window grill. However, the toilet seat was too far from the window and therefore it could not have been used by Dipale to reach the grill.
There was no other chair or stool in the cell. Dr Jacobus, whom Deetlefs met on 8 August 1982 at the time of Dipale’s death told him that “Dipale had been hanged” which could only mean that someone else was implicated. The court also noted that just like in the Aggett Inquest, evidence before it suggested that cells were visited every 30 minutes; and if Dipale is alleged to have undertaken the act of undressing himself, tearing a heavy blanket and finding his way up to the grill to tie the rope he would have been caught in the act.
The court found that the context of torture and assault experienced by political detainees, and other deaths in detention at John Vorster Square police station points to the cover up. Finally, the court relied on evidence by friends and family members who testified that there was no reason for Dipale to commit suicide.
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Endorsed by the following South African Coalition for Transitional Justice members:
Centre for Applied Legal Studies
Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation
Foundation for Human Rights
Human Rights Media Centre
Institute for Healing of Memories
Institute for Justice and Reconciliation
Imam Haron Foundation
Khulumani Galela Campaign
Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture Trust