Fresh inquiry ordered into death of Mbeki's son

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Memories of the "dirty war" waged by South Africa's apartheid regime against its opponents have been revived by a fresh attempt to discover what happened to President Thabo Mbeki's son.

Kwanda Mbeki disappeared in South Africa in 1981 while attempting to join his father and other anti-apartheid activists in exile. He is assumed to have been killed by agents of the white government, but his body, like those of hundreds of others who disappeared while resisting minority rule, was never found.

Fresh leads have been developed in the case and will be followed "very soon", according to Makhosini Nkosi, spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority.

South Africa's first democratically-elected president, Nelson Mandela, set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) under Archbishop Desmond Tutu to investigate apartheid-era crimes on both sides of the struggle, but it wound up its work in 2003 with many cases unresolved. Among them were the disappearances not only of Kwanda Mbeki, born when his father was a teenager, but the President's brother and cousin.

Mr Mbeki has rarely spoken of his own family's losses, and referred to them only in general terms when he gave evidence to the TRC. Last week, however, the President wrote in his weekly ANC newsletter: "I too, and especially my mother, regret that the TRC process did not succeed to unearth the truth about what happened to our own loved ones who disappeared without trace - my brother Jama Mbeki, my son Kwanda Mbeki and my cousin, Phindile Mfeti."

Mr Mbeki did not ask the TRC to investigate the disappearances, but the case of Kwanda Mbeki was referred to the TRC by his mother, Olive Mpahla. She said he disappeared when on his way to visit his uncle, Mr Mfeti, although accounts exist of him having been seen in exile. But the TRC did not have the time or resources to investigate a large proportion of cases, including those of the President's family.

According to South Africa's Sunday Independent, the names of Mr Mbeki's son and cousin are on a list of 477 political disappearances that the TRC forwarded to the National Prosecuting Authority. It has a missing persons' task force which is pursuing the cases, along with about 1,000 others.

Most of the disappearances date from the late 1970s onwards, when the apartheid government resorted to undercover methods to quell the black militancy which erupted in Soweto and other townships in 1976. It staged raids into neighbouring countries to attack ANC training camps and assassinate key opponents in exile. Although the example of the TRC has been copied in many other countries emerging from conflict, there is lingering frustration and bitterness in South Africa at the many agents of apartheid who escaped unpunished or refused to admit their guilt.

The main theme of Mr Mbeki's newsletter, however, was a remarkable ceremony of repentance which took place recently at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, when Adriaan Vlok, a hardline law and order minister in the old regime, publicly washed the feet of the Rev Frank Chikane, the director general in the presidency. "What his [Mr Vlok's] words and actions said to me was that our society, which includes those who matured under circumstances very different from today's, is gradually growing out of its traumatic past," Mr Mbeki wrote.