'I saw him. He was being beaten – too much. You could see it in his face' - the family of Siboniso Shabalala speak out

Winnie Mandela is accused of ordering  the death of Siboniso Shabalala in 1988. Nastasya Tay meets his family in Soweto

"The law must take its course. You can’t kill someone’s child and have it leave you like that. No one is above the law," Curtis Melusi Shabalala said today.

Curtis’s oldest brother Siboniso had been missing for more than 24 years until a nine-month investigation by South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority unearthed what it believes to be his remains on Tuesday, alongside those of his best friend, Lolo Sono.

A young man of 19, he disappeared with 21-year-old Sono in November 1988.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the wife of former President Nelson Mandela, has been accused of giving the order to have them both killed. Witnesses claim both men were last seen at her Soweto home, where they had been severely beaten.

This week’s exhumations have sparked renewed questions about Ms Madikizela-Mandela’s past. Some have called for justice, while others would prefer to simply leave the past alone.

South African police say they’ve opened a murder investigation into the deaths, and will take all information – including testimony from the country’s post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which implicates Ms Madikizela-Mandela – into consideration in their inquiries.

Ms Madikizela-Mandela, who has always denied ever knowing the men, remains a hugely popular political figure in South Africa, despite being jailed for assault and kidnapping in 1991 following the death of another ANC youth activist, Stompie Seipei Mokhetsi, who was killed by her private bodyguards, the Mandela United Football Club. The sentence was eventually reduced to a fine on appeal.

For the Shabalalas little has changed since Siboniso was alive. The family have always lived in the same house with its pale cream walls, rosy roof tiles and a little patch of neatly tended grass, set behind rust-red security bars. The house sits on a narrow, unassuming street, which slopes downwards to an expansive view of Meadowlands Zone 10, on the northern confines of Soweto. It is the last place both young men were seen alive.

Three houses up the road lived Lolo.  The pair did everything together, from selling flower pots on the side of the road, to braaiing (barbecuing) meat with their friends, to secretly joining the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) movement, the militant wing of the ANC.

Sitting in a corner of the family’s cramped dining room, Curtis Shabalala said they were all surprised to find out about his involvement with the group. “It was a secret. I was sleeping with him in my room... And I didn’t know that he was already in that underground movement.”

His sister, Sebenzile Shabalala, added: “All of a sudden he started to play songs, struggle songs, but we never thought that he was an activist. He was a quiet person. He was a person that wasn’t used to talking about many things.”

Siboniso was a stylish man who was always wearing the latest fashions. He used to joke about breaking boundaries and his ambition was to marry a white woman, Sebenzile said.

The family was shocked when one day in November 1988 several members of the Mandela United Football Club, dressed in their signature yellow jerseys, came looking for him. “It was a football club which never played any matches,” said Jabulile Shabalala, his cousin. “It was known that they were a political movement.”

The men were led by Jerry Richardson, team captain and Ms Madikizela-Mandela’s right-hand man, the family claims. Siboniso’s mother, Nomsa, points at a spot on the vinyl floor. “[Richardson] stood there, right there,” she said. They came several times on the same day, she said, but they couldn’t find him. Then they brought a bruised and battered Lolo to the house, forcing him to show them where other family members lived.

“I saw him. He was being beaten. Too much. You could see it in the face,” said Curtis. After they left with Lolo in tow, Sibosiso returned home, only to go searching for his friend the next day.

“The last time I heard from him, he called. He said he was with Lolo. And then the line was cut,” Nomsa said.

So began years of searching and wondering – until in 1997, as South Africa braced itself during the hearings at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the family received a letter. It came from Richardson, with a card: a confession, an apology, and a request. He wrote that he had killed Shabalala and Sono, but only on the orders of Ms Madikizela-Mandela, who told him they were impimpi, or spies. Richardson died in prison in 2009.

Nomsa sighed, and looked away. “We were so cross. I don’t know what must I do. You know, when there’s Winnie inside, you can’t fight,” Curtis said.

Forensic results from the remains exhumed Tuesday are expected within the next few weeks, after which, the family plans to bury their brother’s remains, affording them the proper respect.

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