How a photograph helped bring Struggle hero Patrick Mavundla home
Johannesburg - In March 1988, famed photographer Ken Oosterbroek captured the image of the inside of a burnt-out house on the outskirts of Gaborone, in Botswana.
It is not one of his better-known pictures, it was not hang on an exhibition wall nor has it appeared in a glossy coffee table magazine, but the image has turned out to be something special.
For this image and the rolls of film he shot that day would help in the search to find a missing body.
The Star newspaper photographer had rushed to Botswana, just hours after news had broken that South African defence force commandos had raided a house in Gaborone, killing four people.
One of those photographs would appear on the front page of The Star newspaper, then the negative was filed away and forgotten.
Until 31 years later. Patrick Sandile Mavundla, was one of the people who died that night on March 28, 1988.
He was the man the commandos were hunting when they burst out of the darkness armed with machine guns and explosives. Mavundla was later buried in Gaborone, in the same grave as the two women who were also killed in the raid.
His family was told their bodies were so badly burnt it was impossible to separate them.
It was because of this that his mother Ntombenkulu Busang gave up on her wish to have him returned to his home in Naledi, Soweto. Instead, she asked the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) if a tombstone could be erected at the site of his unmarked grave.
Mavundla became one of apartheid’s missing. And that is why he fell into the sights of a team mandated to search for him.
The National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) Missing Person’s Task Team decided they would try to exhume Mavundla’s body and have him repatriated to South Africa.
This would be their first exhumation outside of the country.
But what they needed was a pointer that would help them work out if they would be able to identify him.
And that is where Oosterbroek’s photographs would help.
“The four bodies were taken to the mortuary and were buried about two weeks later,” says Madeleine Fullard, the head of the Missing Person’s Task Team. “So we were concerned because with burnt bodies you can’t do individual identification. But from Ken’s photographs we see that the house was not totally destroyed by fire, so we reckoned that we could probably determine who was the one male and the two females.”
Fullard and her team had found mortuary and cemetery records that pinpointed the grave where they believed Mavundla had been buried.
She also had the testimony of the only person who survived the attack on the house.
Dan Hatto was a member of the ANC’s intelligence wing and he and Mavundla were friends. The two had known each other for about nine years and were living in the house.
In the Sunday Times on the day before the early morning raid, Hatto read how three ANC operatives were killed while entering South Africa. What wasn’t mentioned in the article was that one of the guerillas was captured in the ambush. The ANC soldier was forced to reveal the location of the safe house in Gaborone. Special forces then took him along on the raid, so that he could point out the house. The raid was launched.
“I don’t know how I survived. When they started shooting I was running around the room trying to climb into a wardrobe. But then I couldn’t, because I recalled that some of my comrades who were killed in Lesotho had been shot in the wardrobes,” recalls Hatto.
He then squeezed under the bed.
“I think that Patrick tried to fight with them. Because I know he didn’t have any arms, only a small pistol. I heard him swearing at them and fighting in the passageway. But then after a few minutes it was quiet,” says Hatto.
With the house on fire and ammunition, Hatto had to smash his way through burglar bars on the windows.
The SADF slipped back across the border, they had got their man.
In the days following Mavundla’s murder, his mother made the trip to Gaborone. She asked to see the body of her son, but was refused as the body was too badly burnt, they said.
With the help of pictures editor Karen Sandison, Fullard was able to locate Oosterbroek’s pictures in the archive. Like Mavundla, Oosterbroek would not see South Africa’s transition to democracy. He was shot dead, nine days before the election.
Fullard and her team’s hunch turned out to be right. When the bodies were exhumed, they were found to not have been burnt beyond recognition. There was enough to identify the soldier.
On September 7, in the Community Hall not far from where he lived in Naledi, Mavundla’s remains were handed over to his family. Someone who was not there to see his coffin be carried by his former comrades was his mother Ntombenkulu. She died before she saw him come home.
In a week’s time, Mavundla will be buried and his friend Hatto will be there.
“So for me being part of the repatriation group has brought closure into what transpired. But to this day I can still hear Patrick swearing at the enemy as he tried to fight them,” he says.