August 2019 saw the passing away of an unsung hero of the struggle for democracy and justice in South Africa, John Motlalepula Motloli. As a serving apartheid era police member Motloli used his job as a cover to provide invaluable assistance to the ANC and to families of MK operatives who had disappeared, or who had died at the hands of the security police, and to expose the truth of what had happened to them. Despite being described as a ‘pillar to the new dispensation’, who ‘worked for the country’, Motloli never received any recognition for his work from the ANC, possibly because the type of information he uncovered would have alarmed ambitious comrades with skeletons in their own closets. Instead of accolades, Motloli, like many other former long serving black African South African Police( SAP) members, remained side-lined for promotion – yet another casualty in the new government’s inexcusable failure to transform the apartheid era police force.
Motloli was born in Orlando in 1947 but after the death of his parents in 1957 he was sent to live with family members in Mount Fletcher (Eastern Cape) where he herded their cattle. Only in 1961 did he start primary school, but he was so intelligent that he passed the first two years combined with flying colours and despite having skipped what were then Standards 4 and 5 came first in Standard 6 (Grade 8). However, there was no money for him to continue high school, so he spent a period working on the mines. A friend persuaded him to return to school and, at the age of 25, he matriculated at Moroko High School. After working for the Chamber of Mines for three years he joined the SAP in 1975, telling friends that the move might protect him from being targeted for his anti-apartheid sentiments.
By the 1980s he was working as a detective at the KwaDabeka SAP near Pinetown, Natal. His investigations in the latter 1980s into state sponsored violence in the townships was to lay the foundations for his later exposure of the forces behind this violence. During his investigations into the notorious A Team who terrorised Chesterville township he discovered that they were being armed by a KwaZulu Government Deputy Minister, Samuel Jamile. With KwaDabeka colleagues he investigated Jamile for killing several Clermont residents opposed to the incorporation of the township into KwaZulu. With threats to the lives of the investigators, it was decided to hand the docket to an outside team headed by Frank Dutton and his partner Wilson Magadla, a ‘homeboy’ of Motloli’s. The Dutton team secured the conviction of Jamile and followed it with convictions of those, including police, implicated in the 1988 Trust Feed massacre. Motloli, who had also worked with Dutton, was later to join his Goldstone team of investigators. From there, in 1994, he transferred to the Special Investigation unit investigating Third Force activities headed by Jan D’Oliviera, and subsequently became involved in TRC investigations.
However, Motloli had been working on police involvement in disappearances and deaths of operative such as Stanley Bhila, Phumezo Nxiweni and Dion Cele, under the cover of other investigative work, since the late 1980s. Some of the TRC exposures were the result of his early work, which had been spurred by appeals from families of exiles who had disappeared. Cases he investigated included those in which police informers had primed grenades for use by operatives, or police had wrongly claimed that those they had shot had been robbers killed in self-defence. He was a man of few words whose quiet, unassuming manner won the confidence and trust of people who were prepared to provide information, including askaris (some of whom he assisted). Although he was to win the confidence of some black African security police members, his investigations made him extremely unpopular with their colleagues who threatened and insulted him but, after 1990, found it more difficult to act against him, especially when he worked for the Goldstone or d’Oliviera teams. He was a loving family man who went to great lengths to shield them from this work and when, during this period, he sensed a threat to them in the township in which they lived, he moved them to a formerly white suburban area.
Through the leads he had followed up, and the relationships he had established he knew about some of the Vlakplaas operations, including those linked to the C10 unit active in what is now KZN before they were exposed publicly. These included the 1986 killings of a group of operatives known as the Quarry Road Four, and four men in Chesterville. The late Colonel Andy Taylor and other security police were later to apply to the TRC for amnesty for the latter killings. Other disappearances and deaths for which he had done the groundwork included those of MK members Ntombi Khubeka who had been abducted by an askari from her KwaMashu home on the instructions of Vlakplaas C Section and the Natal Security police, and Portia Ndwandwe, who had been abducted from Swaziland. Their bodies were exhumed during TRC investigations as were those of some of the other missing activists. Although he had done his best to assist the Phewas of Lamontville, the bodies of Sobho Phewa and Musa Phewa, who were abducted from the township in 1987 were never found.
It was Motloli who exposed the truth about the disappearance in 1990 of Operation Vula operatives Mbuso Shabalala and Charles Ndaba after the security police spread false rumours about Ndaba having betrayed Shabalala. Although the TRC found that their bodies had been dumped in the Thukela River mouth, Motloli had continued to follow up information from a knowledgeable man he worked with in the 2000s who died after being knocked down by a vehicle, apparently deliberately.
After leaving the TRC Motloli spent several more years in the SAPS, including in Crime Intelligence. However, he was utterly frustrated because while he remained a warrant officer the command structure to which he reported included former security policemen who had been promoted well above him. Academic research in the 1990s showed this type of skewed promotion was commonplace. The severe stress was impacting negatively on Motloli’s health, and he took early retirement. He was not the only competent, highly experienced black African police member to do so, for the same reasons. Motloli’s exceptional work was a product of his support for the liberation struggle, and it succeeded because he was an excellent investigator who knew how to follow up leads and win the confidence of informers, including those who had killed for apartheid. Post liberation policing could have been very different had the new government recognised, rewarded, and fully supported the work of Motloli and colleagues with similar skills.