Durban - Former workers on Glenroy Farm, the South Coast farm where mass graves were discovered last week, said they had no knowledge of a mass grave of prison labourers who used to work at the farm.
They said they used to be involved in the burial of prisoners, and each worker who died had their own burial.
Thembekile Mbambo, 62, and Sdumo Mhlongo were some of the few remaining people in Zembeni in Dududu, who had had personal contact with the prisoners.
Farmer Walter Lins, who owned the sugar cane farm, had “bought” prisoners to work on the farm. After he died about 30 years ago, the farm was sold to Illovo Sugar.
News of the alleged mass grave grabbed headlines after being tabled in a report at the KwaZulu-Natal executive council meeting last week.
Mbambo said the prisoners died from illnesses like tuberculosis.
“Although there were often deaths, each one was buried in their own grave. The graves were close to each other and it is possible that there were people who had their graves dug on already existing graves.
“There was a churchman, Pastor Mbhele, who used to be called to pray, but he is no more. These people’s homes were not known and there was no formal burial for them.”
Mhlongo, who used to drive tractors on the farm, said he was disturbed to hear that there were claims of a mass burial on the farm.
“We used to dig out graves and bury the prisoners; we never used tractors for a mass burial. There was no murder that I know of,” he said.
“Some were put in a modest coffin and some were covered in a blanket and put in the grave,” he said.
Mhlongo said many injured prisoners were brought to the farm and some succumbed to their wounds. The section of the farm where they used to be buried was called Ezinkompolo-Ezintandaneni.
Mbambo said the labourers had been bought from “Sentele” (referring to Durban Central Prison) for 5 cents. Some of the prisoners had told them they were from townships surrounding Durban “like Umlazi”. When they arrived, she said, they were wearing sacks.
Mhlongo said the farmer told them to leave their clothes in the storeroom and wear sacks, “so when they were released they would have something to wear”.
However, he believed the sacks were to make it easy to recognise prisoners when they escaped.
Mbambo used to secretly bring the prisoners clothes to wear so they would not be recognised when they escaped.
“However, some had problems along the way, because they would escape through bush and they would be attacked by wild animals or shot by people who thought they were criminals,” she said.
Illovo spokesman Chris Fitz-Gerald said they had been told that a derelict building, “which was previously hidden by thick and overgrown vegetation on an uncultivated section of the farm, was in fact a prison building many years ago.”
When The Mercury went to the farm on Tuesday, its management would not show or allow anyone to go to the grave site.
“The site remains closed. Authorities from the KZN premier's office, the Departments of Arts and Culture and Correctional Services are investigating.
“We expect that they will make a public announcement of their findings in due course,” said Fitz-Gerald.
He said they had been made aware of the graves in December last year. They had bought the farm in 1989.
“At this stage, we are not aware of the number of graves on the property.”