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Frank Dutton’s monumental legacy

Frank Dutton was a completely unassuming man, but a legend in the world of unearthing human rights abuses and crimes against humanity, says the writer. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Frank Dutton was a completely unassuming man, but a legend in the world of unearthing human rights abuses and crimes against humanity, says the writer. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Jan 28, 2022

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South Africa’s world-famous investigator Frank Dutton was sipping tea at the Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton when I first met him in 2018 with Advocate Howard Varney.

He had been deeply immersed in investigations on apartheid deaths in detention, and without him, the cases of Ahmed Timol, Nokuthula Simelane, Neil Aggett and the Cradock 4 may never have been re-opened.

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Dutton was a completely unassuming man, but a legend in the world of unearthing human rights abuses and crimes against humanity, and his vast experience in the killing fields of our own country and those around the world left one in awe. He was particularly interested at the time in the exposures by former Security Branch policeman Paul Erasmus in the involvement of security branch members in the murder of leading ANC activists.

One expected to be intimidated in the presence of a man who led the UN war crimes investigations in the former Yugoslavia in the late 1990s, commanding operations to unearth mass graves and pursuing the masterminds of ethnic cleansing like Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. His investigations led to indictments against Milosevic and others for war crimes.

But Frank could have been the uncle you never met. It was rare to meet a man with such an astounding list of international accomplishments, yet who was so easy to talk to.

His untimely passing last week left so many in the social justice fraternity completely gutted. He was the razor-sharp mind that could navigate his way to the bottom of any investigation, and despite the cunning deception of former security branch officers who have refused to break their pact of silence, he was capable of finding the evidence to bring them to justice. When he was appointed to work as a lead investigator for the Zondo commission, his expertise was sorely missed in addressing the unfinished business of the TRC.

Dutton’s rise to fame could not have been predicted, having come from a background in the South African police as early as 1966, but his integrity and determination led him to uncover the truth behind the grisly murders of black South Africans in the late 1980s, as ordered by senior apartheid police commanders.

Dutton first made his mark during the investigation into the killing of 11 black men, women and children at a night vigil in 1988 in Trust Feed, Natal, which was part of a false flag operation carried out by a police hit squad to make it look like the ANC was responsible, and stoke tensions between the ANC and the IFP. Thanks to Dutton’s work in the face of death threats, local SAP commander Brian Mitchell was given 11 death sentences for his role in their murders.

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But Dutton’s high point was his exposure of the infamous Third Force of apartheid spies, assassins and police hit squads operating at the behest of those in the top echelons of the apartheid machinery.

Dutton became the lead investigator for the Goldstone Commission, and the evidence he unearthed of the government’s connivance with the IFP in fanning politically motivated violence, and the role of the top police command structure in the murder of political activists using hit squads under the command of Eugene de Kock at Vlakplaas, really put him on the map as one of the country’s finest detectives. His exposure to the Third Force paved the way for the establishment of the TRC to investigate gross human rights violations.

The first two presidents in post-apartheid South Africa relied heavily on Dutton’s skills, with President Nelson Mandela hiring him to lead an elite squad of detectives and prosecutors called the Investigation Task Unit to root out old guard elements still engaged in anti-Black violence.

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Later President Thabo Mbeki hired him to establish and head the Directorate of Special Operations - the Scorpions until 2004. Dutton only recruited the best, and his staff had to speak no less than four local South African languages.

But when the Scorpions were shut down Dutton’s talents were in huge demand across the world - starting with the UN Security Council asking him to investigate the causes of violence in Darfur.

The UN mission in the DRC then asked him to investigate the horrendous levels of sexual abuse in the east of the country in 2005. Even the government of the Seychelles asked him to look into their unmanageable levels of crime and then restructure their police force. His intervention saw crime reduced by 30 percent, and 100 pirates on the high seas captured.

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Dutton’s grit and simplicity were the hallmarks of his success, and his belief that no one is above the law ensured that all perpetrators were held to account.

We were in need of him at home now more than ever before. In his absence, it is now urgent for us to train more Frank Duttons if we are to succeed in our war against corruption.

* Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor at Independent Media.

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