JOHANNESBURG -- After a yearlong inquest into South Africa's most compelling political murder mystery, a judge ruled yesterday that the army and police had killed Matthew Goniwe and three other anti-apartheid campaigners in 1985 as part of a drive to contain civil unrest.
But Judge Neville W. Zietsman said he could not conclusively link any of the suspects -- including Gen. Christoffel van der Westhuizen, who rose to become chief of military intelligence -- to the four bodies that were found scorched and mutilated on a prairie outside Port Elizabeth.
Although members of the security forces have been convicted of political murders, the finding yesterday was the first to declare that killing critics of apartheid had been official policy.
"We have up to now been told there are bad apples in the security forces, and only at a low level," said George Bizos, the lawyer for the wives of the four dead men.
"The judge's finding was that this was a well-planned murder of high-profile political activists deliberately carried out by the security forces as a matter of state policy."
Nyameka Goniwe, the widow of Mr. Goniwe, said last night that she was crestfallen that the judge had been unable to name the killers. She and other survivors are pursuing a civil suit against the government for about $430,000 in damages.
The finding comes at a time when President Nelson Mandela has promised an amnesty for political crimes, a gesture of reconciliation aimed in part at assuring the loyalty of the police and military.
The proposal would forgive political crimes committed before Dec. 5, when the end of white rule seemed irreversible, but only if the culprits disclosed their crimes to a commission.
Mrs. Goniwe said she would accept amnesty for her husband's killers in exchange for an admission of guilt.
The case of Mr. Goniwe and his comrades, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlauli, captured the public imagination because it tore open the secret fraternity of the security forces as no case before it.
Mr. Goniwe, who was 38 when he died, rallied black resistance to apartheid in the Eastern Cape as an organizer for the United Democratic Front, the legal front organization for the banned African National Congress.
On the night of June 27, 1985, Mr. Goniwe and his three comrades set off for a meeting. Their tortured bodies and Mr. Goniwe's Honda sedan were found burned and scattered in the brush.
An initial inquest blamed unknown assassins. But a South African newspaper unearthed an official message confirming a telephone conversation between General van der Westhuizen, then the army commander of the Eastern Cape region, and a representative of the State Security Council, the Cabinet-level group that was in charge of the campaign to put down black unrest.
The message said the general proposed to the council that Mr. Goniwe and his companions be "permanently removed from society as a matter of urgency." It was dated 20 days before the men disappeared.
In testimony at the inquest, the general said he could not remember the message.