A police photograph, from June 1986, of the burnt out Kombi, in which the Mamelodi Ten lost their lives.
A police photograph, from June 1986, of the burnt out Kombi, in which the Mamelodi Ten lost their lives.

New tech helps find last of the remains of the Mamelodi 10

By Shaun Smillie Time of article published Feb 8, 2020

Share this article:

Johannesburg - In 1986, apartheid security forces attempted to obliterate the identities of 10 murdered Mamelodi teenagers. But if not for dogged detective work and advancing technology, they may have succeeded.

The Mamelodi 10 were Stephen Makena, Jeremiah Magagula, Morris Nkabinde, Jeremiah Ntuli, Rooibaard Geldenhuys, Samuel Masilela, Thomas Phiri, Elliot Sathege, Abraham Makubane and Sipho Sibanyoni. They ranged in age from 14 to 19.

In 2008, coffins carrying exhumed remains of nine of the 10 were lined up at the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom Square in Mamelodi. On each stood a faded black and white photograph.

Later they would be buried side by side in one grave. One coffin remained empty, representing the last of the 10 who had been buried in Winterveld north of the city.

Watching the memorial service then was Madeleine Fullard, the head of the Missing Persons Task Team of the National Prosecuting Authority which had found the remains. Speaking of the missing one, she said: “He might be found next week, it might be next year.”

The search was to take much longer than that. Between 2005 and 2006, the task team had located and exhumed nine of the Mamelodi 10.

Each had been buried in a pauper’s grave at Winterveld Cemetery, and because their remains were so badly burnt, it was not possible to identify them individually through DNA.

“This is a very difficult cemetery, because there are no records,” said Claudia Bisso, an Argentinian member of the team who has worked around the world, finding and exhuming bodies of those killed in conflicts.

Joe Mamasela was the man responsible for the teenagers’ disappearance.

He was an undercover police officer for the apartheid regime and behind his bookish glasses, a ruthless killer.

His assignment, that night he fetched them in Mamelodi, was to lure them to their death, telling them they were going to Botswana for training.

But the plan of the security branch and then defence force was to ambush and kill them. Mamasela drove them by minibus into what was then the homeland of Bophuthatswana.

At a prearranged spot, the minibus came to a halt and was surrounded by special forces soldiers. The teenagers were told to get out of the vehicle and injected with a drug that knocked them out before they were put back in the minibus, an accident was staged and the vehicle set alight.

The next day the bodies were found in the burnt-out vehicle.

A paper trail would show how they were dispatched to two mortuaries before disappearing, one by one, into unmarked pauper graves in the Winterveld Cemetery.

In the years to follow, numerous attempts were made to find them, and give them a proper burial.

Among unmarked burial mounds and the odd tombstone hidden in the tall grass, the team were looking for the section of the cemetery that held graves from 1986.

Success would depend on finding a way to map the cemetery.

Early in the search, Fullard located police crime-scene photographs of the wrecked minibus and the charred corpses inside. The gruesome photographs would provide important leads.

“It helped us a lot to understand the condition of the bodies, of the degree of burning,” she said, as she and her colleagues realised that few of those buried in the cemetery would have been burnt to such a degree.

At one point, Bisso marked some of the graves with little yellow flags she had collected while working in Sudan. “When we got back to the cemetery, we found people had taken the flags and made little posies from them and put them on graves.”

After nine of the Mamelodi 10 had been buried, the years rolled by.

While other cases took priority, task team members would revisit the cemetery periodically and never lost hope that their search would eventually reveal number 10.

Graves were opened, but the remains they found didn’t match the burn patterns of the other nine. But then new technology gave Bisso an idea. “Drone technology came along and Claudia suggested that we try doing high-resolution aerial photography of the cemetery,” said Fullard.

Watching on a monitor, they could spot the tell-tale rounded mounds of earth. The team used the high-definition aerial photographs to create a map of the cemetery.

They showed this to the mothers of the Mamelodi 10 and it brought renewed hope that the final missing son would be brought home soon.

By the time task team investigator Billy Motsileng arrived at the cemetery last October 31, 250 graves had already been examined.

The focus of the search was for three freedom fighters who disappeared a year after the Mamelodi 10.

“We basically had given up on the last of the Mamelodi 10. We were pretty sure that someone had accidentally put a tombstone on his grave.”

Motsileng went into grave 54 and the blackened soil immediately caught his eye. He called Bisso over to take a look. Among the bones were other fragments. “There were pieces of glass,” said Motsileng.

The graves of the other members of the Mamelodi 10 had contained glass, the shattered remnants of the minibus’ windscreen and windows. There were pieces of burnt car upholstery, but also something else, a piece of evidence that would finally unite the body in grave 54 with those of his comrades.

It was a green plastic tag the team had only ever seen in their exhumations of the other nine Mamelodi 10 members, a tag said to have come from a mortuary.

Bisso phoned Fullard. “And Claudia said to me I can retire now, because this was the first case she and I had worked together”

Nine of the 10 mothers watched as Bisso officially exhumed the body on last December 19.

Sadly Maggie Nkabinde, Morris Nkabinde’s mother, had gone to a clinic that morning as she was not feeling well. That evening, she died.

She didn’t see the exhumation of the remains of what may have been her son.

In a couple of months’ time, the last member of the Mamelodi 10 will be buried alongside the other nine in the Mamelodi West Cemetery.

In the meanwhile, the task team will continue to coax the Winterveld Cemetery north of Tshwane to give up its dead.

This article was first published by New Frame.

Share this article: