Daughter's quest for answers on who shot dead her activist father in 1984
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Durban - KwaMashu resident Nomthandazo Mthethwa never knew her father. “I was 4 on the day he was shot,” she says.
“Although I didn’t know him, he knew me. I look a lot like him,” she adds, sadness in her tone.
Her father, Msongeleni Mthethwa, was born in eNgudwini in the Shayinja district of Eshowe on November 16, 1955. He moved to Durban in 1970 where he became politically active in the ANC. In 1981, Msongeleni, who was also known by the names “Otto”, “Gobinsimbi” or “Magujane”, left South Africa with Magwaza Maphalala, “Tunkie” Thulani Maphumulo and “Goso” Mhlawumbe Maphumulo to undergo military training with Umkhonto we Sizwe.
On April 21, 1984, he and three other MK members were caught in a police trap on the Piet Retief-Potgietersrus road shortly after crossing into South Africa from Swaziland near the Houdkop border post. Msongeleni was shot dead at a roadblock and buried as an unidentified pauper in Thandukukhanya cemetery in Piet Retief.
Nomthandazo says she grew up knowing little about the circumstances around her father’s disappearance and death. “But my gran always cried, urging me to never give up on Dad, that’s why I kept believing that one day I would see him again,” she says.
Her mom, Busi Mthethwa, who has since remarried, also never gave up hope of her husband returning.
“She tells me she’s fine, but one does not know what goes on inside the mind of someone. He was her lover, her hopes and dreams. My mom believed that one day he’d come back. But it was not to be,” she says.
She does not have a photo of her and dad. The family albums were lost during the violence between the ANC and IFP supporters in KwaMashu in the mid-1980s.
There was no hope when her father went missing. But that was to change when the Missing Persons Task Team under the auspices of the National Prosecuting Authority traced the burial site of her father to a cemetery in Thandukukhanya, exhuming his remains on August 9, 2012, with support of the Mkhondo Local Municipality in Mpumalanga.
The news was conveyed to Nomthandazo via the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal. But while the politicians moved into public relations mode, for the family, it was a harsh realisation. Their missing dad was dead.
“I grew up without a father who fought for freedom, and instead of coming home, he died for freedom. But we still don’t have this freedom. We’re still struggling, can hardly make ends meet, and live challenging lives in our township,” she says.
Growing up in KwaMashu, on the north coast of Durban, without a father was rough for Nomthandazo, 40, who went to school in Inanda, grew up fast and had two children, now aged 22 and 7, and a grandson, but she says there is no option but to rise against the tide.
Unemployed and facing a daily struggle, Nomthandazo is pleased that her daughter Nokwanda agreed to name her grandson Nkululeko (Freedom).
“I’ve got my Freedom,” she smiles.
Msongeleni was reburied by the ANC in Durban on December 8, 2014, 28 years after his death. He leaves his three children, Nomthandazo, Mboniseni and Fikile.
“When listening to the story about my father, I was proud to learn that he was a hero and spilled his blood to end apartheid. Closure does not mean there was justice.
“I would like to know who pulled the trigger, just to look him in the eye and ask him to tell me what is different now because of what you have done?
Nomthandazo says returning the remains to the family and reburying these in a grave in Redhill, Durban, was not the end of the story.
“What about justice?” she asks.
She is angry that survivors have been forgotten.
“Until the reburial, it seems that we didn’t exist,” Nomthandazo says, adding that closure was not complete without justice for the person responsible for robbing her of a father.
“All his siblings have passed on. It was a case of too little, too late, but I’m pleased that his remains are home,” she says.
Nomthandazo insists she’s grateful to the Missing Persons Task Team for closing the puzzle on her father’s disappearance.
Anti-apartheid activist and former Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) researcher Madeleine Fullard heads the Missing Persons Task Team whose work involves scouring grave-sites using forensic anthropology and DNA to find people on a list of missing persons.
The team was established in terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act to investigate the nearly 500 cases of missing persons that were reported to the TRC but remained unsolved. The president endorsed this recommendation in April 2003, on tabling the TRC’s Final Report in Parliament.
Ironically, their work in the early days relied on the co-operation of killer apartheid policeman Eugene de Kock, who helped lead the team to a number of sites where murdered people were disposed of.
“I wouldn’t exactly say we are about conventional justice, if you are talking about justice in the courts.
“Our cases don’t generally end up in court. Most of them involved amnesty, some were skirmishes, others involved are deceased and so on. It’s about getting answers for families of those missing, trying to piece together what happened and provide dignity to the dead,” she says.
Using DNA in about one-third of their cases, the team matches injuries to photos and so on, among other complex forensic investigations.
“We work with skeletons, use a tooth, or cut a small section from the bone, compared to reference samples from family, to get a match,” she says of the process.
While the TRC estimates that there are more than 12000 names of missing people, the real number is probably closer to 1500, but Fullard and her team began working on a list of 500 names. Her close-knit team comprises investigators Ambrose Ndhlovu, John Mailane, Billy Motsileng, Deborah Quin, Sipiwo Pahlane and forensic anthropologists Kavita Lakha and Claudia Bisso, a member of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team responsible for identifying the remains of Che Guevara bones in the Bolivian jungle in 1997.
So far, the remains of 175 individuals on the missing persons list have been handed over to families.
Naidu is a journalist at the Wits Justice Project (WJP) . Based in the journalism department of the University of the Witwatersrand, the WJP investigates human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice related to SA’s criminal justice system.