IT BEGAN as a simple process of excavating until a point where the skeletal remains lay. Then a highly delicate and painstaking job began.
Forensic experts using trowels and paint brushes began slowly exposing human bones – ribs, arm bones, knee joints and pelvises with little indication of an intact skull.
And where there appeared to be more than one of the same bone, red tape was used to mark them. This was an indication that two bodies had been shoved in one coffin and buried in one grave.
Standing by the grave, relatives of the men whose remains were being exhumed struggled to hold back tears as they saw their loved ones’ remains.
The bones are believed to be the remains of two Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) cadres, Cyprian Bheki Hlatshwayo, alias MK Bismarck, from Soweto, and Vuyani Goniwe, alias MK Jorrisen, from Alice, Eastern Cape. They were 23 and 29 respectively when they died.
They were killed in a skirmish while on a mission on October 27, 1978 on a farm on the outskirts of Masutlhe Village, west of Mafikeng, now part of North West.
They were part of a reconnaissance unit that infiltrated SA from Botswana. After walking through the night, they rested under an acacia tree and were spotted by a helicopter, and confronted by members of the Bophuthatswana National Guard.
Some distance away, Tebogo Lefenya, then a youthful man living on his father’s farm, and his family heard the gunshots as bullets were spewed from the helicopter and around the MK men. It is also believed grenades were used.
After the combat, Goniwe’s and Hlatswayo’s bullet-riddled, disjointed bodies were taken away. Almost 34 years later, their remains were exhumed at the Old Mmabatho Cemetery in Mafikeng on Friday.
Hlatswayo’s sister, Sarafina Funani, who lives in Mafikeng, said she started searching for her brother when he did not return home in 1994.
“We were aware that he had secretly left his job as a male nurse to join MK, but we were worried when other freedom fighters returned and he did not. We later learnt that he was killed somewhere, but no one knew where and what happened or where he was buried,” Funani said.
“It is sad that I have been attending funerals at this very cemetery and probably stood by my brother’s grave but didn’t know. I’m glad that we’ll now find closure and healing once we’ve given him a decent burial.”
After following leads, the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) Missing Persons Task Team set about solving the matter.
“It was not easy because the cemetery and mortuary records were missing. We looked at graves with dates close to (Goniwe and Hlatswayo’s) deaths and in the end we excavated 11 graves,” said the task team’s Madeleine Fullard.
“We then, on June 28, decided to go back to a 12th grave which was flat and that’s where we discovered two skeletal remains. They were buried one on top of the other.”
Goniwe’s uncle, Joshua Tsewu, remembered his nephew as a “brave” man.
“He loved rugby because they used the sport as a disguise, and that’s where they met and discussed politics. He was playing rugby when I last saw him alive,” he said.
“The family is relieved that in the end his remains have been found and will be taken home for a proper burial. He was one of those who sacrificed his own life so that we can enjoy the freedom that we have today.”
Meanwhile, the NPA said the skeletal remains will be sent for forensic analysis to confirm their identities, cause of death and for the bones to be sorted out accordingly so that the correct remains are given to each of the families.
At least 10 MK remains have been exhumed by the missing persons task team at different sites in Mafikeng in recent years. They were killed by the erstwhile Bophuthatswana and apartheid security forces.
Meanwhile, North West Premier Thandi Modise called for all Struggle combatants to be “honoured as heroes”, and for the “stories of self-sacrifices” to be told and form part of history.