About the Scholarship
The Bheki Mlangeni scholarship was founded by Cheadle Thompson & Haysom in memory of Bhekisizwe Godfrey Mlangeni, a colleague and friend, who was assassinated in the course of his work at the firm in 1991.
The background to the scholarship is best described in the address to the 2002 launch of the bursary at the University of the Witwatersrand which is reproduced below:
Bhekisizwe Godfrey Mlangeni joined the firm in January 1989.
“Joined” probably best describes the relationship because at that time, aspirant lawyers committed to a democratic future sought out employment at Cheadle Thompson & Haysom in order to challenge the apartheid legal order of the time and to champion the principles that now underpin our Constitution.
But Bheki joined the firm not only as a graduate of Wits University and as an aspirant lawyer … he joined as a formidable student and community activist from a poor working class background; and as a father, husband and son of the Mlangeni family. He died on 15 February 1991 in an explosion triggered by a booby-trapped cassette player manufactured and dispatched by the Vlakplaas Unit of the then South African Police.
The bursary is intended:
- to celebrate all of our memories of Bheki;
- to promote progressive legal education at Wits University;
- to remind us of the profound sacrifices made in order to achieve democracy in our country; and
- to remind us of our continuing responsibility to entrench and realise the principles that underpin our Constitution.
Who Bheki Was
Bheki was, notwithstanding his youth at the time of his death, regarded as a community leader of the highest calibre. He was the ANC Jabulani Branch chairperson. He was a former student leader at Fort Hare and Wits Universities and was deeply involved in the Soweto Civic Association. As an activist he had been detained for lengthy periods on 3 separate occasions.
He was survived by his wife, Seipati Mlangeni and their son Mandla (he was 4 years old at the time). He was also survived by 3 other children, a daughter, Nolwazi (14 at the time) and 2 sons, Tieho and Xolani (who were 12 and 13 at the time). He left behind his father, Mr Koos Mlangeni his mother Mamosadi Catherine Mlangeni and his siblings, John, Masesi, Charles and Lindani.
The Circumstances of Bheki’s Death
The explosive device that killed Bheki Mlangeni on 15 February 1991 was contained in a parcel that arrived at the firm by registered post. The parcel was addressed to Dirk Coetzee in Lusaka, Zambia, a former commander of the C-10 Vlakplaas unit of the then South African Police who had fled to the African National Congress in exile after the hit squad activities of the unit had been exposed publicly. The parcel wrapping identified Bheki Mlangeni at Cheadle Thompson & Haysom as the sender. Bheki was on board exam study leave at the time that the parcel was delivered to the firm but collected it on 15 February 1991 when clearing his pigeon hole. He took the parcel home and opened it. It contained a walkman cassette player attached to headphones filled with explosives. It also contained two cassettes: one entitled “Further evidence – Hit squads” and the other a Neil Diamond cassette. Bheki was killed later that evening when he tried to listen to the cassettes.
By way of background, Bheki was a member of the firm’s legal team representing the Independent Board of Inquiry into Informal Repression and various other clients at the Harms Commission of Inquiry into assassination squads in the then South African Police and South African Defence Force. The Commission was established following hit squad revelations made by Almond Nofomela, a former policeman who was on death row and scheduled to hang following a murder conviction. Nofomela revealed the assassination activities of the C-10 unit of the South African Police based at Vlakplaas outside Pretoria. Soon thereafter, Dirk Coetzee, a former commander of the Vlakplaas unit who had fled to the African National Congress in Lusaka publicly confirmed Nofomela’s allegations and exposed more information about the assassination activities of the unit.
Bheki liaised extensively with Coetzee during the Commission, both in Zambia and in London. It was precisely for this reason that Bheki’s name and the firm’s address was entered on the parcel as the name and address of the sender. Eugene de Kock (who replaced Dirk Coetzee as the commander of the Vlakplaas unit) later told the Amnesty Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he had received the name and address from a Colonel du Plessis who had informed him that Bheki was the only person from whom Dirk Coetzee would receive anything from South Africa. He also told the Committee that the Neil Diamond cassette had been included in the parcel, precisely because of Coetzee’s fondness of the singer’s music.
The explosive device was prepared by members of the Vlakplaas unit and sent by registered mail to Coetzee in Lusaka. Coetzee refused to accept the parcel. He apparently suspected it was a bomb. As a result the parcel was returned through the postal system to the address of the sender, ending up in Bheki’s pigeon hole at Cheadle Thompson & Haysom some months later.
The firm launched a massive investigation into Bheki’s death, frustrated by General van der Westhuizen and Captain Kritzinger who were in charge of the police investigation into his death. The investigation included following all possible leads including the investigations into the parcel bomb killings of Dulcie September in France, Ruth First in Mozambique and Janet Schoon in Botswana. We engaged the services of South African and British handwriting experts to analyse the parcel’s wrapping obtaining handwriting samples from various suspects including General Lothar Neethling. The firm consulted with the forensic team that investigated the Lockerbie aircraft bombing disaster over Scotland. It also investigated a subsequent assassination plot against Dirk Coetzee in London by South African military intelligence agents who had been arrested by the British Anti-Terrorism Unit.
Despite all of this, we were unable at the time to establish a direct link between Bheki’s death and the C-10 Vlakplaas unit. In his inquest findings into Bheki’s death, Judge O’Donovan held that his death was brought about by an unlawful act by an unknown person or persons and criticized the South African Police investigating team saying that had they acted with greater promptness, it may well have led to a different finding.
Despite this setback, investigations into Bheki’s death continued, culminating on 9 September 1996 when Colonel Eugene de Kock was convicted of culpable homicide arising from Bheki’s death. Following the criminal trial, the firm launched a civil claim on behalf of Bheki’s dependants against the State, ironically citing the new Minister of the South African Police Services, Sydney Mufamadi as the defendant. The matter was postponed pending the amnesty hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It was at the amnesty hearings in 1998 that the full story surrounding Bheki’s death was told. The applicants for amnesty were Eugene de Kock, Isaac Daniel Bosch, Jakobus Kok, Willem Albertus Nortjé, Willem Riaan Bellingan, Jacob Francois Kok, Waal du Toit, Simon Makopo Radebe and Kobus Klopper. They were granted amnesty.
As if dealing with Bheki’s death and finding those responsible was not difficult enough, the Compensation Commissioner repudiated a worker’s compensation claim on behalf of Bheki’s dependants in 1992 on the grounds that the explosion was not an accident “arising out of and in the course of his employment” at the firm. One of the grounds for repudiation was that the Neil Diamond tape was present at the scene of the explosion and that the Commissioner could not exclude the possibility that Bheki was simply listening to music at the time of the accident. Our objection to the finding was rejected and an initial application to the High Court dismissed. Shortly before our appeal was to be heard in the Supreme Court of Appeals, the Director-General of the Department of Labour agreed to review the initial decision of the Commissioner on the grounds of new evidence that had emerged in the course of the Eugene de Kock amnesty hearings. Following a review hearing, the initial decision by the Commissioner was overturned and the claims of Bheki’s dependants accepted. The Commissioner then extended benefits to all of his dependants.
The legal chapter has now been closed.
The Importance of the Bursary to CTH
The novelist, Milan Kundera in his Book of Laughter and Forgetting spoke of the struggle of memory against forgetting. Establishing this bursary is part of the firm’s struggle against forgetting … to remember where we come from, to draw strength from these memories and to maintain our founding principles.
The firm has changed since the early 1990’s. We have grown exponentially, expanding our scope from human rights and labour law to constitutional, public administration, media, telecommunications and commercial law amongst others. In this process we have grown in number to a firm of 67 people with more than 60% of our equity held by black directors and more than 40% by women. We have grown with our clients and the fundamental political transformation of the last decade. Today, our clients include trade unions, government at national, provincial and local levels, major corporations, pension funds, small businesses, NGOs and individuals.
This change has been profoundly challenging and at times very difficult. We are a very different law firm today and the Bheki Mlangeni bursary provides us with a standard to measure ourselves against, to remember his sacrifice and the impact of his life and his death on the firm, and to remain true to our past in a different era.
The Terms of the Bursary
The bursary in honour of Bheki Mlangeni’s memory commenced in the 2003 academic year and is awarded on an annual basis to a deserving final year LLB student who:
- is black and disadvantaged financially;
- has demonstrated excellence in constitutional, labour or administrative law; and
- has demonstrated a commitment to use his or her legal qualification to advance the cause of social justice.
The bursary covers tuition fees and the cost of the student’s prescribed text-books to the total value of R25 000, and will require the student to work at the firm for a limited vacation period during the year to gain practical exposure to the firm’s clients and to its constitutional, labour and administrative law practice.
Extension of Gratitude
We wish to take this opportunity both on behalf of the Mlangeni family and on behalf of the firm to extend our profound gratitude to the various people who were of immeasurable assistance over the years:
Jules Browde and Gys Rautenbach at the inquest into Bheki’s death;
Gilbert Marcus, Jules Browde, Gys Rautenbach and Gordon Aber with the Compensation Commissioner dispute;
Gys Rautenbach again at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission amnesty hearings; and
Paul Pretorius and Matilda Masipa with the civil claim.
We would also like to extend our gratitude to everyone who provided moral and financial assistance to the family and the firm through the lengthy legal processes, including Gay McDougal of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, Mary Rayner of Amnesty International and Horst Kleinschmidt of the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF), later SALDEF.
Amongst other things, Amnesty International sponsored Tefo Raditapole on a European speaking tour dealing with Bheki’s death. Tefo still talks of local people in remote European villages writing letters throughout the night to then President De Klerk in a campaign for the prosecution of Bheki’s murderers.
Finally, we praise the courage of the Mlangeni family throughout this period and for their patience as the legal process unfolded.