CSI South Africa: Apartheid's last murder mystery

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Nosizile Shweni's eyes glisten as she watches a coffin being set down in front of her. This is the closest the 81-year-old has come to seeing her husband Nontasi for nearly half a century. Inside the coffin is what little is left of him: a few crumbling bones painstakingly exhumed from an unmarked grave miles from home. Nontasi Shweni died at the gallows in Pretoria in 1967 aged just 36 and, until a few months ago, his wife could not even be certain whether he had been killed – let alone where he was buried.

His coffin is one of six that have just been carried on the shoulders of men in military fatigues through the crowded dirt streets of the small South African town of Cofimvaba k in the Eastern Cape. It sits alongside the others inside a hall draped with political flags and reverberating to the sounds of freedom songs. For Mrs Shweni, the discovery ends decades of waiting. "When I see the grave at my home, I'll be very happy," she says, smiling. "I can't remember exactly the last time it was I saw my husband, but it was long, long ago. I want his bones to rest in a real grave; finally I am going to bury my husband with dignity."

Shweni's body – along with those of five other men hanged by the state for the stoning of a police vehicle in 1962 was found last year by South Africa's Missing Persons Task Team, a group of forensic anthropologists, archaeologists and historians that has been carrying out the final work of the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Shweni's bones were finally uncovered beneath the unkempt grass and red dirt of a pauper's grave in the back of Rebecca Street Cemetery, near Pretoria. The New Review is here, having gained unprecedented access to the Missing Persons team as they travel the country in search of the lives lost in "the struggle" and the dangerous truth about South Africa's past.

Like Mrs Shweni, many families first got in touch with the TRC because they could not even be certain that their sons, husbands or brothers had died. During the apartheid years, when so many took up arms in the fight against a divided society, hundreds of those killed in clashes with police, or executed later for their role in the fighting, were dumped in anonymous graves far from their homes.

Between 1960 and 1990, around 135 political prisoners were executed for political offences in South Africa, but an estimated 21,000 died in political violence during the struggle. These long years were also characterised by in-fighting stoked by the state, which set activists and agitators from across the country against each other.

As many of these activists had travelled hundreds of miles from their homes to work and campaign in cities, there was little chance of their families finding them if they "disappeared" in mysterious circumstances.

For a few families, resolution is now tantalisingly close. But unearthing these bodies, and the secrets that were buried with them, is not a prospect that all in the county relish – not least the country's ruling ANC government.

The TRC recommended in 1998 that a missing person's team be set up, but years went by without action. Then, in 2005, a South African historian and researcher who had worked on the commission, Madeleine Fullard, decided to go in search of the lost bodies. "Any family who has ever had a person disappear knows it remains an open wound. In South Africa there is a strong cultural need to make sure the bones of the deceased are buried with their ancestors," she explains. "People went to the TRC sometimes decades after their child had disappeared but they still wanted answers. These families have been stuck in the same place for 30 years or more and this was an opportunity for them to get – if not closure – than at least a move to a new place."

With just one paid forensic investigator on a small government grant and an ad hoc team of volunteers, Fullard began the work. She took advice from the scientists who had worked on the search for Argentina's disappeared in the 1980s and 1990s, but progress was slow. In the first few years they were able to solve only a handful of cases; now the team, which employs newly qualified forensic anthropologists from South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, has solved more than 60 cases and returned 44 bodies to families. They believe they can find and return at least 150 of the "lost" bodies first reported to the TRC – though at the current rate, that could take another decade.

After lengthy analysis of cemetery and court records in early 2010, the Missing Persons Team found the bones of Nontasi Shweni, and another five men who were buried in secret by the state. They'd been sentenced to hanging in 1967 and 1968 for their supposed involvement in an attack on a police car in the township of Langa, Cape Town.

The men were all members of the military wing of the radical Pan African Congress (PAC), and had travelled to Cape Town to take part in the struggle against apartheid. Their eventual trial, execution and burial in and around Pretoria took them even further from home, giving most of their families little hope of hearing news of their fate. After lying undetected for more than 40 years, the so-called Langa Six were traced to Rebecca Street using evidence from previously unexamined cemetery records, and finally by exhuming and studying the skeletons.

The night before the bodies are handed over to their families, the team is up late, "building" the skeletons from scratch inside new coffins. The first clue that the disinterred remains were those of the Six is to be found in their neck bones; archaeologist Laché Rossouw points to the second vertebrae of one body: "Hang-man fractures," she explains, indicating two hairline splits on either side of the bone.

The following day in Cofimvaba, the families talk of the sacrifices of their loved ones with pride. But for Mrs Shweni, the initial elation of the discovery of her husband's remains again is short-lived. "My son was also involved in the struggle and died, so now I have no husband and no son. I'm not sure if that was worth it for a free South Africa."

Mrs Shweni's doubts do not chime with the event's celebratory mood. Many in the crowd are not relatives of any of the Langa Six, but loyal PAC members, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as "Political Freedom Without Economic Power is No Freedom". Though the party is a minor player on the South African stage, its leaders believe they are in tune with growing dissatisfaction with the achievements of South Africa since the onset of democracy. After the end of apartheid in 1994, the new ANC government set a target of handing over 30 per cent of commercial farmland to the black majority by 2014 as part of a plan to correct racial imbalances in land distribution. But so far, a mere 6 per cent of agricultural land has been given to blacks.

Monde Nqulwana, the great-nephew of one of the Langa Six, Gladstone Nqulwana, is part of a new generation who were teenagers when white rule ended – and who are frustrated at the pace of change. The 35-year-old is a community activist for the ANC, but feels the party has let the country down. "If Gladstone and the other Six were alive, they would say there needs to be a change. All that has changed is the right to vote. We didn't fight to create a black elite; we wanted Africans to have ownership of the land."

On a corrugated hillside outside Durban, a grave-digger raises a pickaxe in readiness. The Missing Persons team has arrived at Ntuzuma Cemetery to try to find the body of Vusumuzi Nyembe, a 28-year-old special operative killed in a dramatic five-hour fire-fight with police in Durban in 1984. He had been part of the militarised wing of the ANC, originally led by Nelson Mandela. This liberation army was known as Umkhonto We Sizwe – or MK for short – meaning "Spear of the Nation". Armed with a rocket launcher, grenades and AK-47s, Nyembe and a team of activists had targeted the Mobil Oil factory, in a bid to undermine the infrastructure of the white-rule government.

During the clash, a local paint factory caught fire and three workers were burnt to death. The incident was such an embarrassment to the police – four of whom were injured – that the bodies (including those of the innocent factory workers) were all dumped in this remote cemetery. Official paperwork shows police brought Nyembe to the mortuary under a false name. He had become so notorious that they did not want him to become a martyr for the cause. The Nyembe family in Soweto never heard what had happened, but they approached the TRC in 1996 to see if they could get an answer. Now they may finally find out.

Using dog-eared cemetery records, the team have located the likely graves on this hillside, but with no gravestones, they are forced to examine the shape of the land to locate them: when coffins decompose, the earth falls in, creating a slight dip. It is along a row of these dips that they start digging. A JCB is brought over to remove the first four feet, then the grave-diggers take over until they reach bone. At this point the team climb into each of the four open graves to identify the remains. It soon becomes clear they are in the right place.

"Burnt beyond recognition" was the record for the three who died in the paint-factory fire and as the anthropologists pull back the plastic covering on three of the bodies, they reveal what looks like the remains of a gruesome barbecue: a bed of black and grey dust with shrunken, charred bones lying on top. When the skull of the only unburnt body in the row is pieced together, it reveals a perfectly round exit wound; this is most likely the body of Nyembe.

Claudia Bisso, one of the forensic anthropologists crouched in the graves, exclaims "Beautiful bones!" as she examines tell-tale fractures and degrees of decomposition. She was one of the Argentineans who came out to help the team when they started, but stayed on and now works for them full-time. Bisso has helped to train the rest of the team and create a local knowledge of forensic anthropology.

For Madeleine Fullard, it's important that this work goes further than South Africa. "This is the first time a government in Africa has taken responsibility for such a project. Our goal is to become the kernel of the first forensic anthropology unit on the continent. There were truth commissions in Sierra Leone and Liberia but no forensic exhumations. This kind of work is important in making people feel the consequences and in making the meaning of human life matter."

There are some graves in South Africa, however, which many would like to remain undisturbed. One such belongs to the secretly buried freedom fighter "Comrade V", whose remains have lain undetected for 23 years. The death of V still remains a mystery. His real name was Veli Tshabalala and he had been an MK member for several years before his death in 1987. And his story reveals the problems in using a government-funded team to look into such deaths.

Existing reports suggest he died in Soweto after being deliberately run down by a car and shot at in an incident described by one of the ANC members at his graveside as "not unfriendly fire". This was at a time when Mandela was still in prison and his then-wife Winnie was growing ever more powerful. Her personal security detail, known as the Mandela United Football Club, would become notorious two years later after one of her young followers, 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi, was kidnapped and stabbed to death.

The violence of the ANC against its own members during this time was fuelled by anxiety, often justified, about informers to the apartheid regime – but it is a facet of the party's past that they would rather remained buried. Testimony to the TRC by other MK members suggested V had been in a battle for control of the unit with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The ANC did their own internal investigation, but never disclosed its conclusions. Madikizela-Mandela categorically denies any involvement in the killing and the TRC could not find enough evidence to determine who killed him.

V was an orphan and it was his uncle, Mzondeki Tshabalala, who brought him up as a son in Soweto. Standing at V's graveside today, the 65-year-old looks shocked as the team use brushes and trowels to uncover his nephew's body. When V died, Mzondeki was in prison for his own involvement in MK. "I went to visit the family [after release from prison] and they said, 'Where is [Veli]? What did you do to him?' They thought I sold him out and killed him. Today they can see what is going on; the truth has come at last."

But the truth is perhaps not as close as Mzondeki hopes. Peering into the open grave, Brian Ndhlovu, a former MK commander from the same time who is now a businessman, says: "We suspect it was an assassination but we're a bit scared to deal with that. When other people are happy to talk, we will. There are still questions open. There are things we don't touch when we talk about MK."

Reverend Gideon Makhanya travelled with Madikizela-Mandela to Tembisa to bury V and is today sitting by the grave. "It was a secret funeral as he was a wanted man. His body was stolen from the government mortuary, then we had to bury him far from Soweto. We hired an impostor aunt to claim he was hers and that he died working as a gardener. We organised an undertaker and Winnie ordered it be transferred here."

Fractures on the legs seem consistent with being run over by a car, and there are further fractures on the skull – these will be taken back to the laboratory for further examination – but the team's priority seems to be identifying the remains, rather than getting answers about how he died. "We had to assure the ANC we wouldn't be looking into how he died; that it was just a reburial for the family," admits a researcher.

Yasmin Sooka, a former commissioner on the TRC, who is now head of South Africa's Foundation for Human Rights, believes that cases such as Comrade V's show that unless the team confronts all of South Africa's past, their work will be flawed. "The story is incomplete if you don't deal with how they died. I think they've done incredible work, but if I was the head prosecutor I'd be asking these questions. It is something that needs political discussion."

But for V's sister, Disebo Khoabane, this is less of a priority. For her, even knowing V died and getting the chance to bury him is a good start on the road to closing a sad chapter. "For a long time I had no one to ask, as nobody knew," she says. "He just vanished. I haven't had a chance to say goodbye until now. Now I can bury my brother, I'm happy."

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