JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) — Forensic scientists on Tuesday exhumed two bodies believed to belong to young activists last seen 24 years ago at the home of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as police said they have opened a new murder investigation.
The case reopens a dark chapter in the life of the then-wife of Nelson Mandela. Many South Africans still revere the 76-year-old as “the mother of the nation” but others have feared her as a vengeful and heartless operator. She had “the blood of African children on her hands,” her former friend Xoliswa Falati told South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In the late 1990s, the commission found that Madikizela-Mandela was responsible for the disappearances in November 1988 of 21-year-old Lolo Sono and his friend Sibuniso Tshabalala, 19. But nothing was done to pursue allegations she was directly involved in their killings, even though her chief bodyguard Jerry Richardson told the commission he and a colleague stabbed the young men to death on Madikizela-Mandela’s orders.
Mortuary records indicate the two bodies that were unearthed on Tuesday had multiple stab wounds
During the commission hearings, Madikizela-Mandela denied all knowledge of the two and said allegations she was involved in six other killings were rubbish. She could not be reached for comment.
Richardson was head of the Mandela United Football Club, a crowd of young men who acted as Madikizela-Mandela’s bodyguards and also as vigilantes, whom, some charge, she used to get rid of enemies.
On Tuesday, the African National Congress party — which Madikizela-Mandela serves as a recently re-elected member of the National Executive Council — orchestrated the ceremony that brought more than 100 family members to watch the uncovering of the skeletal remains believed to belong to Sono and Tshabalala.
Most attendees responded only lukewarmly to traditional ANC slogans, causing one official to urge them to respond with more vigor. Another told them to “make sure everyone knows you are ANC families.”
ANC officials tried to prevent family members, some of whom have accused Madikizela-Mandela of killing their sons, from talking to reporters.
John Sono, uncle of one of the missing men, insisted on speaking, saying, “We are getting some relief because we know that we are closing the chapter of ‘we don’t know’ and we are opening the chapter of ‘here lies our son.’”
When a journalist asked if he wanted justice, Sono said, “That one is still very far, we still need to talk about it,” before an ANC official shoved his hand in front of TV microphones, saying, “No, no he can’t answer that one.”
Piers Pigou, the senior investigator for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission who cross-examined Madikizela-Mandela during its hearings, told The Associated Press that “I think the standard of proof used by the Truth Commission basically established prima facie (enough evidence to prosecute) cases against Mrs. Mandela and members of the Mandela United Football Club, including in the disappearances of Sono and Tshabalala.”
Pigou said he found it particularly distressing to know that the men’s bodies were taken to the mortuary the day after they disappeared and that police were unable to link them to the two missing men who were being desperately sought by their families.
The commission lambasted police investigations into the disappearances, causing some to wonder whether the incompetence was purposeful. Pigou said there was “a pattern of incredibly incompetent investigations” with an “
enormous number of missing dockets.”
This time, the two new murder dockets have been opened by the Hawks, the police priority investigative unit, Capt. Paul Ramaloko told The Associated Press.
He said there had been no investigation since the original case was opened and 1988 and closed soon after.
“It’s too early to be saying if we have suspects or not,” Ramaloko, the Hawks spokesman, said, but added they were asking anyone with information about what happened 24 years ago to come forward.
Asked to whether investigators would be
questioning Madikizela-Mandela, he said, “At this stage we don’t have an affidavit or statement guiding us to that direction but should it transpire at a later stage we would obviously do the right thing … Whoever the investigation identifies as the suspect in this case, we would obviously bring the person forth to answer some questions.”
In 1991, Madikizela-Mandela was sentenced to six years’ jail for kidnapping and assault in the death of 14-year-old James Seipei “Stompie” Moeketsi, who also had last been seen at her home and who was beaten to death.
She appealed, the assault conviction was overturned and the sentence reduced to a suspended jail term.
Madikizela-Mandela had been openly contemptuous of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where she made an appearance 15 years ago. She has said that the commission headed by Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu had wrongfully sacrificed justice for reconciliation.
She said Tutu never once asked her about all the years of torture, assault, death threats, banishment and 18 months of solitary confinement that she suffered while her husband was imprisoned and she became a leading symbol of the struggle in South Africa.
Tutu had begged her for the truth. “If you are able to bring yourself to say something went wrong, I beg you, I beg you, I beg you,” he said. “You are a great person and you don’t know how your greatness would be enhanced if you were to say, ‘Sorry, things went wrong. Forgive me.’”
The commission noted her contempt “not only for the commission but for the notion of accountability.” She had been incensed that the commission treated victims and perpetrators of apartheid equally.
“They have a nerve to suggest that freedom fighters who fought for freedom must account for their actions while the perpetrators of the worst atrocities are walking the streets laughing at the efforts of our struggle,” she said at the time.
Madikizela-Mandela was separated from Mandela in 1992, two years after he was released from 27 years of incarceration.
Their divorce was finalized in 1996. In 1994 he was elected president of South Africa, with the all-race vote marking the final blow to apartheid, the system of white rule.