KwaZulu-Natal / 17 March 2015, 2:41pm / NOSIPHO MNGOMA and KAMCILLA PILLAY
Durban - The burial of bodies of prison labourers on a South Coast farm was apparently an open secret in the community.
The winds in Zembeni in the town of Dududu have long been whispering tales of the remains of prisoners buried in mass graves on three sites on Glenroy Farm.
The Daily News on Monday spoke to the community surrounding the now infamous sugar cane farm on which three mass graves were discovered late last year.
News of the graves emerged last week after it came up as an item on the agenda at a KwaZulu-Natal executive council meeting.
The authorities are investigating.
Despite the fact the owner of the farm is dead and the farm was sold to the Illovo Sugar Group almost 30 years ago, people still wanted to speak anonymously for fear of their lives.
An elderly woman who used to work seasonally at the farm, said the prisoners used for labour on the farm, would be transported from Durban by truck.
Although she never saw any of them, even during the time she worked there, she said the deaths and burials on the farm did not come as a shock.
“Growing up, we knew there were prisoners working there; they served their sentences there and when it was over, they would be dealt with and buried there.”
This grim legend was confirmed late last year after a sangoma revealed she had had visions of restless spirits in the area during the Department of Arts and Culture’s oral history project aimed at recording the province’s past. The sangoma declined to speak to the Daily News.
The department and the Office of the Premier would investigate and called on the National Prosecuting Authority, Department of Home Affairs and forensic investigators to determine the identities of those buried on the farm.
Some of the inmates had escaped from the Zembeni area.
Another woman said she had twice seen escapees.
“The first one had asked for directions to Umkomaas. He was wearing clothes made of mealie meal sacks and no shoes. I was still young and did not make the connection until years later when another man dressed exactly the same came past,” she said. “My relatives gave him pants and a shirt and burned his sack clothes before sending him on his way.”
To some, the stories were just that, stories. With the mass grave sites unidentifiable and the burials having taken place during the apartheid era, a young woman said her grandmother would tell them stories about the prisoners.
Her home is perched on a hill overlooking the massive farm.
“My grandmother would tell us they would see rows of brown bodies (because of the clothing they wore) working in the fields.
When the day’s work was done, they would be marched to their prison on the farm,” she said, pointing to a building on the farm.
The building’s roof is at ground level with a dungeon below.
Illovo Sugar’s group communications manager, Chris Fitz-Gerald, said they were “informed that a derelict building, previously hidden from sight by thick and overgrown vegetation on an uncultivated section of the farm, was in fact a prison building many years ago.”
He said that the graves recently discovered may well be those of prisoners.
An elderly man born in the area said the prisoners were “bought” by the farmer who was well known to the community.
Another woman described the farmer as “helpful but shrewd”.
“If you were short of food, he would give you a sack of mealie meal but take a cow from your kraal in return,” she recalled.
She said the farmer would employ local children to pull out the stubs of sugar cane, after it had been harvested, for a pittance.
Although the matter is an open secret in the community, the details of how the prisoners died differ from person to person. Some believe those buried at the farm died of old age; others from illness or exhaustion. Yet still others believe the prisoners were beaten or shot.
Fitz-Gerald said they were not aware if the prisoners had carried out any labour on the farm prior to Illovo’s ownership of the property, but said the company had never used, and did not use, prison labour at any of its operations.
The sites remain overgrown with bush and untouched. Fitz-Gerald said they had remained closed so that the investigation could go ahead.
“From the outset, Illovo has co-operated fully with the investigating authorities and will continue to provide support and assistance to the authorities until the investigation is completed. We expect that they will make a public announcement of their findings in due course,” he said.
Meanwhile, Amafa Heritage KwaZulu-Natal said it should be included in the probe of mass graves discovered on a South Coast sugar cane farm.
Annie van de Venter-Radford, deputy director of Research, Professional Services and Compliance, said on Monday that they had not been notified of the discovery of the graves.
“But we sincerely hope that Amafa will be included as a stakeholder as by the (KZN) executive council resolution.”
She said Section 36 of the National Heritage Resources Act was clear that the exhumation of graves - including those of victims of conflict - was subject to a permit from the relevant provincial heritage resources agency.
The section also stated that when a grave was discovered, it had to be reported to the responsible heritage resources authority, which had to be in co-operation with the SAPS to carry out an investigation, Van de Venter-Radford said.
KZN Department of Arts and Culture spokesman, Lethukuthula Mtshali, said the investigation was being undertaken by several agencies.
“At this point we are unable to confirm any details. We are awaiting the outcome of our preliminary investigations.”
He said there was a risk in revealing details piecemeal because the situation was so delicate.
“People might have lost someone here. We need to make sure our information is checked and verified before we go public.”
Head of communications for the Premier’s office, Thami Ngwenya, agreed.
“At this stage, we are restricting everything to the executive council statement we issued (on Saturday). Once all consultations have been finalised, we will communicate further details.”