Struggle continues for survivors seeking closure
Johannesburg - Among those requesting help in locating missing persons was Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize in his capacity as a former Umkhonto we Sizwe commander in KwaZulu-Natal, who wanted to help the families of missing MK operatives Mandla Mjwara and Mfaniseni Mdlalose to establish their fate and recover their remains.
Mjwara, known as Sandile Zinhle Mahlangu, and Mdlalose, known as Aaron Hlatshwayo, joined MK in 1983 and 1984, respectively, receiving military training in Angola. During 1987, both were operating in a cell inside the country under the command of Mkhize when they disappeared.
The recent probe into their disappearance was led by investigator Deborah Quin in the Durban office of the National Prosecuting Authority.
The investigation drew up various sources of information including fragments of information obtained by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) from security police records.
Code names used by the two MK members were linked to some of these incidents, mortuary registers for shooting incidents involving the police during the period of their disappearance, cemetery registers for records of pauper burials, and old police dockets from 1987 were traced in the areas from which they disappeared.
The unit’s search began at two pauper graves at the Red Hill cemetery in Durban. Unfortunately, graves had been recycled over the past decade, as is common practice, which meant that a third person had recently been buried in each grave, with the original remains below disturbed, damaged and partly mixed together.
In January 2017, the entire team conducted excavations of the two pauper graves, removing the newly buried individuals and exhuming the original remains below. Once the remains of the original four paupers buried in 1987 were recovered from the two graves, they were forensically examined to establish age, sex and any visible trauma.
One was found to be a female victim of a car accident and was excluded. DNA samples were taken from the remaining three young adult males.
In 2018, two of the remains were matched to DNA samples from the families of Mjwara and Mdlalose. Their identities were confirmed, and the remains handed over to the families in August 2018.
Marjorie Jobson, national director of Khulumani Support Group, which has 85000 members, says the TRC did not address the issue of survivors.
“Many families who have lost loved ones want to know what happened to them during their last moments. Did he die a brave man? What was the last thing he said? In one instance an operative - Harold Sefolo - had as his last wish, the opportunity to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika before he was electrocuted.”
“Survivors of those dead want to know who did it and why, but despite the reuniting of remains with families, there is still no justice for those who lost their lives nor their survivors,” adds Jobson.
She says before Covid-19 engulfed the world, Khulumani embarked on plans for a global movement for survivors of people missing with the establishment of the International Network of Victims and Survivors (Inovas) founded in January this year.
Jobson believes reopening of the TRC lists which closed for victims on December 14, 1997, with inadequate notice to the public - only three small articles in English-medium newspapers and no public service announcements - would mean that justice would be equitable for all victims of apartheid.
“Currently, there is a continuing grave injustice to victims based on the flaws and limitations of the TRC process,” she adds.
The struggle for the rights of survivors, however, is not unique to apartheid South Africa and spreads throughout the world as far as Latin America, North Africa, Asia and the Middle East, says Nepalese social justice crusader Ram Bhandari, currently reading for a doctorate exploring the experience of survivors of missing people in Portugal under the supervision of UCT academic Jeremy Sarkin, chairperson- rapporteur of the UN Working Group on Eswatini, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
Bhandari is the driving force behind Inovas. On December 31, 2001, his beloved father Tej Bahadur Bhandari, 56, disappeared after being arrested by security forces from the streets of Besisahar and taken to the district headquarter of Lamjung.
“He was handcuffed, blindfolded and heavily tortured. My father was a dreamer, educator and cultural activist, well-known in local communities. He was a school teacher for more than three decades and worked to transform local communities through schools, arts and culture,” he says.
Bhandari, whose dissertation takes him to Argentina, South Africa and Nepal, says whatever the reason, those people disappeared and to this day no information has been revealed regarding their whereabouts or what happened to them.
“The actual number of victims is several times higher than the published figure when one considers parents, spouses, friends and young children that will never know a parent. Often it was men that were taken, robbing a family of its breadwinner and source of income,” he says.
Bhandari became involved in the search for his father the day after he disappeared.
“I recall the clothing that he wore that day. It was a light grey shirt, half sweater, and black pants. He carried a golden colour watch. Each detail gives me a small visual memory of a father whose fate still remains unknown.”
On his personal journey to find his father, Bhandari says thus far it’s been futile, yet the emotional attachment is what continues to drive him and survivors in general to keep looking.
“Gradually, I became engaged in the victim rights movement and have spent the last two decades working for the families of the disappeared. We have to tell our stories, reorganise, and prepare for a long battle to keep the voices of the families alive.”