News agency, Cape Town, South Africa
Tuesday December 18th 2018

Search for apartheid political prisoners continues

National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) Missing Person’s Unit head Madeleine Fullard and fellow archeologists come up empty as they look for the remains of ex-political prisoners. Photo: Sandiso Phaliso/WCN

Families of over 20 political prisoners who died on Robben Island and were buried by the apartheid state in unmarked graves have waited 40 years or more to find the remains of their loved ones.

But the discovery, once again, of empty graves in Cape Town’s Stikland Cemetery this week following a Robben Island Museum researcher’s painstaking work to pinpoint the correct burial sites, means the devastated families could have to wait for another decade before they can give their relatives a proper burial.

It could take the next 10-years for families of ex-political prisoners to know where their loved one’s remains were buried, said National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) Missing Person’s Unit head Madeleine Fullard.

The ex-political prisoners died on Robben Island between 1963 and 1970 and the Robben Island Museum, after being contacted by some of the families in 1994, started investigating the whereabouts of the graves in 1997 by examining records and conducting oral interviews.

Archaeologists have been probing grave sites since May but where remains have been found they have not matched those of the political prisoners.

It has been a heart-rending process of deferred hope since June last year when the Robben Island Museum believed that had finally solved the riddle, with families being ferried to the island to see where their loved ones were incarcerated and where announcements of planned exhumations were made.

The further disappointment following the unsuccessful attempts to find the prisoner’s remains when 12 graves were uncovered on Thursday and Friday diminished families hopes that they would ever find closure.

35-year-old Thembela Mvalwana, grandchild of ex-political prisoner Zincwasile Mvalwana, said he is losing hope.

“It does not make me feel good that the diggers (archaeologists) are pointing here today and pointing there the next day,” he said.

“I want to get done with this and move on with my life. (But) I am prepared to wait even if it means waiting 10 years to get the right remains, because at the end I want to bury my grandfather next to his family,” said Mvalwana.

He said he feared that by the time the archaeologists found the remains he or other family members will themselves have died.

“My father has been following this since I was young but now he is dead without knowing where my grandfather was buried. I have taken over from what my father was doing.”

Robben Island Museum Researcher Nolubabalo Tongo-Cetywayo said: “By the looks of things it seems it will take us the next five to 10-years before the actual remains of the ex-political prisoners are found. The families of the ex-political prisoners are willing to wait. They (the families) have said that they will wait, whatever it takes, as long as at the end they will receive the right remains at the end of the processes.”

She said the job was made extremely difficult by the fact that the apartheid government left no records regarding the burial of Robben Island prisoners.

Tongo-Cetywayo said over 20 prisoners died on Robben Island while serving their sentences, but only 12 possible graves had been identified through oral interviews, visits to graveyards, mortuaries and home affairs offices. – Sandiso Phaliso, West Cape News

Tags: apartheid, npa, Robben Island, stikland

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