Frank Dutton: an investigator dedicated to truth

The devoted detective worked tirelessly to uphold the rule of law, tackling crucial cases before and after democracy in South Africa and bringing criminals to book all over the world.

Frank Kennan Dutton, 72, who died on 19 January in Hillcrest, KwaZulu-Natal, was a key player in significant human rights investigations and cases in South Africa and abroad. He was a humble, dedicated and principled fighter for justice who eschewed the spotlight, letting his rigorous work over four decades do the talking.

The detective helped prosecute a number of major cases in the period leading up to South Africa’s democratic negotiations. His investigative talents then took him to Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Darfur, Afghanistan and Rwanda, where his work played a role in bringing to book some of those responsible for gross human rights violations. He returned to South Africa in 2000 when former President Thabo Mbeki tasked him with setting up the Scorpions, which he headed until his retirement in 2004.

April 1994: Frank Dutton, fourth from the left, with Nelson Mandela and others at Mahlamba Ndlopfu in Pretoria a few months after Mandela was elected president. (Photograph supplied)

Dutton was awarded the Order of the Baobab in Gold – South Africa’s highest civilian honour – in 2012 for exposing the apartheid government’s third force, for his role in working for peace in Kwa-Zulu Natal and for his international investigative work.

As an investigator and consultant for the Foundation for Human Rights, Dutton contributed to the inquests into the deaths of Ahmed Timol and Neil Aggett. He also supported the ongoing prosecution of former apartheid security police officers accused of murdering and kidnapping activist Nokuthula Simelane as well as the battle of the Cradock Four’s families for justice. At the time of his death, Dutton was a lead investigator for the Zondo commission. 

Uncovering the truth

Dutton was born in Bela-Bela, Limpopo, on 20 May 1949. He attended Boys’ Town School in Magaliesburg before joining the South African Police in 1966. After completing his training, he was posted to Greenwood Park, Glendale and Tongaat police stations. While at Tongaat in 1971 Dutton became a detective. He was promoted to the rank of commissioned officer in 1983 and then appointed head of the Durban West Field Unit, which investigated cases involving serious violence. 

As political violence intensified in Natal during the 1980s, Dutton’s unit found itself at the forefront of investigations. Some of the cases revealed indisputable evidence of the long-rumoured hand of the apartheid government in destabilising the province. Most famously, Dutton’s unit helped convict Captain Brian Mitchell and a number of other provincial police officers for their involvement in the 1988 Trust Feed massacre, which left 11 people dead. Mitchell later became the first member of the apartheid security forces to be granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

In Nelson Mandela’s 1992 speech in Tanzania to the Organisation of African Unity, he cited the Trust Feed case, conducted with Dutton’s longtime colleague and equally dogged investigator Lwandle Wilson Magadla, as key to setting democracy negotiations in motion. Magadla, who died in 2011, was posthumously awarded the Order of the Baobab in Gold in 2012.  

January 2016: From left, Howard Varney, Imtiaz Cajee, George Bizos, Frank Dutton and Moray Hathorn outside the National Prosecuting Authority in Pretoria after a meeting to urge action in cases such as the death of Ahmed Timol. (Photograph supplied) 

Dutton led the Kwa-Zulu Natal investigations team of the Goldstone Commission in 1992. His work uncovered important revelations about the workings of the security police, including its activities during Eugene de Kock’s command at Vlakplaas. After the commission published its report in 1994, Dutton served on the Special Investigation Team working under Jan D’Oliveira, attorney-general of the Transvaal, to prepare prosecutions arising from the report. When De Kock’s colleagues turned on him and, fearing for their lives, escaped into witness protection in Denmark, Dutton met them there and helped them prepare affidavits for the prosecution of their former commander. 

In the same year, Minister of Safety and Security Sydney Mufamadi needed a dependable and incorruptible public servant to lead the newly formed Investigation Task Unit. Its first order of business: hit squads in the ranks of the KwaZulu-Natal police. He turned to Dutton, who showed how the South African Defence Force helped train fighters for Inkata hit squads fighting against the UDF and ANC.

Mandela seconded Dutton to the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 1996. He provided invaluable help in its investigations of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity during that region’s brutal war. Dutton was then given the job of heading the tribunal’s Sarajevo office where he managed all investigations, including exhuming mass graves in Bosnia. The next year he was promoted to the rank of commander and placed in charge of all field investigations in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. His work in the region, particularly into the cases of Albanians evicted from Kosovo, ultimately led to indictments against Slobodan Milošević and several of his senior officials for crimes against humanity. 

After his retirement from the South African Police Service in 2004, Dutton investigated causes of violence in Darfur, allegations of sexual abuse against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an explosion at the living quarters of United Nation staff members in Afghanistan and the causes of violence that engulfed East Timor in 2006. 

24 August 2017: From left, Imtiaz Cajee, Marcia Schrueder, Howard Varney, Frank Dutton, Torie Pretorius and Moray Hathorn in the high court in Pretoria after closing arguments during the inquest into Ahmed Timol’s death. (Photograph supplied)

Dutton was part of the panel that reviewed the evidence against former National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi in 2007 in order to make a recommendation to Vusi Pikoli, national director of public prosecutions, about his prosecution. 

Dutton later helped restructure the national police force of the Seychelles to curb a spike in crime on the islands and to fight piracy. 

Back in South Africa, Dutton’s investigative work for the Foundation for Human Rights injected much-needed life into apartheid-era criminal cases. He ensured sufficient evidence was presented to the National Prosecuting Authority, forcing it to take definite action and bringing relief to victims’ families.

In his evidence at the reopened inquests into the deaths of Timol and Aggett, Dutton was calm, methodical and rigorous. He showed how he had examined old evidence and interviewed witnesses authorities had forgotten in the decades since the end of the truth commission. Working closely with families, Dutton was conscious of the group effort involved in the process of pursuing cold cases. He saw his work as a necessary public service to uncover the truth and hold those responsible to account. 

Respected by peers

National Director of Public Prosecutions Shamila Batohi said Dutton’s death was “a huge loss” in the fight for justice and accountability. The Foundation for Human Rights celebrated Dutton as ethical, skilled and diligent, but also as “a fun person to be with, a raconteur of note [who used to tell] hair-raising stories about his work in KwaZulu-Natal during the internecine violence of the apartheid years as well as his missions abroad.”

The foundation’s statement also paid tribute to Dutton’s dedication and commitment to accountability and justice for victims, adding that he was “never motivated by retribution or personal fame”. Acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo praised Dutton as “one of the best detectives and investigators that this country has produced”.

But perhaps the most fitting epitaph that could be bestowed on Dutton can be found in the slogan he coined for the Scorpions: “Loved by the people, feared by criminals, respected by peers”.

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