News agency, Cape Town, South Africa
Friday June 22nd 2018

Monument for the missing remains of Robben Island prisoners to be unveiled

A band from St Pauls Apostolic Church performs at the launch of a monument to 12 political prisoners who died on Robben Island during the '60s that is being constructed at the Stikland Cemetry. Photo: Sandiso Phaliso/WCN

A band from St Pauls Apostolic Church performs at the launch of a monument to 12 political prisoners who died on Robben Island during the '60s that is being constructed at the Stikland Cemetry. Photo: Sandiso Phaliso/WCN


Although the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) Missing Persons could not locate 12 graves of political prisoners who died while on Robben Island and assumed buried in Stikland cemetery during the 1960’s, their families said they are happy a memorial with their names on will be unveiled there next week.

The missing persons unit has been unable to find the bodies despite four years of investigations and exhumations.

During the launch of the unveiling today at the cemetery, where construction workers were seen building the monument, families of the deceased and surviving ex-political prisoners told of the suffering they had to endure while searching for their loved ones and friends.

The discovery of empty graves during exhumations over the last four-years meant the devastated families would not be able to bury their loves ones at the places of their choosing – predominantly at sites in the Eastern Cape where most of political prisoners originally came from.

Families are “disappointed but happy” that the chapter of searching for the graves had come to an end.

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 their graves in 1997 by examining records and conducting oral interviews.

Archaeologists from the NPA Missing Persons unit have been probing grave sites since May 2010 but where remains have been found they “have not matched those of the political prisoners,” NPA Missing Persons coordinator Madeilene Fullard said yesterday.

“We are really reaching the final stages on this project,” said Fullard.

She said political prisoners on Robben Island mostly died due to the inhumane conditions they wre forced to endure which led to them getting ill.

The prisoners were buried in unmarked gaves and “unfortunately there is no map of this area that says who was buried where and when,” said Fullard, adding that “our challenge was to look for documentation and compare it with records obtained from the Island, and it was not easy”.

She said she was very disappointed at not being able to find the graves.

Grandchild of political prisoner Zincwasile Mvalwana, Thembela Mvalwana, 38, said not knowing where his grandfather’s remains were was “very difficult”.

“I wished we are going to find those graves, but I saw the difficulties (of finding the graves) and I am not blaming anyone,” he said.

However, he said, “I am not okay”.

He said his family contacted the Robben Island Museum in 2008 in search of the details of the death and burial of his grandfather.

The names of Mvalwana and the other Robben Island political prisoners were found in the Stikland Cemetery burial registers, but their remains could not be located.

In May 2009 representatives of the 12 ex-prisoners families were invited on a pilgrimage to Robben Island and they also visited Stikland Cemetery for a spiritual ceremony.

Despite extensive digging the archaeologists reported back in February 2011 that they had not been able to successfully locate and positively identify any of the remains for exhumation purposes.

Ex-political prisoner Sindile Mngqibisa welcomed the unveiling ceremony and thanked the City of Cape Town, NPA Missing Person’s, South African Heritage Resource Agency (Sahra) and the Robben Island Museum for participating in the project.

Robben Island Museum senior researcher Nolubabalo Tongo-Cetwayo said the 12 ex-political prisoners were not the only people that the museum was searching for, saying “there are thousands more”.

“All we want to do is to make closure.  This step (launching of the unveiling of the monument) is like a beginning phase for the closure,” said Tongo-Cetwayo.

City of Cape Town’s mayoral executive committee for human settlements Thandeka Gqada said the City has made resources available in the design of the monument.

“We will participate in this project because it is the right thing to do,” said Gqada.

The unveiling of the monument is expected to start on February 19 at the Robben Island, in cells where the political prisoners were incarcerated and ends on February 23 at the cemetery.

Spiritual groups are expected to perform various rituals. – Sandiso Phaliso

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