As the world celebrates Easter, a South African family — the Vulindlelas — has a reason to smile.
The family will finally give decent burials to the remains of five members hanged at the Pretoria Central Prison during apartheid.
“I thought this day would never come. This thing was never ending. We always thought about it,” said Mncedisi Tyopo, the Vulindlela family representative. The family stopped using the surname Vulindlela to avoid apartheid police.
The five were among 83 political activists sentenced to death and buried in unmarked graves between 1960 and 1988.
The three siblings, their father and an 18-year-old nephew, were part of 23 members of the Pan-Africanist Congress arrested for the killing of five white people at Mbashe Bridge near Umtata in February 1963. They were all hanged.
South Africa’s Justice department is spearheading a project that will see the remains of the political prisoners handed to their families in six months.
Veteran journalist Ray Mdluli hails the move and believes families would get consolation as bodies of those executed remained the property of the state.
“I’ve interacted with some families in the past and some wish to give decent burial to their loved ones and show their grandchildren, who are now grown men and women, were their relatives were laid to rest,” he said.
Although buried on the same day, the Vulindlelas are not in the same grave.
Somewhere in the veld outside Pretoria is grave RS2915 where Bhekaphansi’s remains lie. His brother, Bonase, was reportedly placed on top of him. The body of another executed man Nqaba Menani, was placed on top of Bonase.
The other three; Shilegu, Sanduge and Malisa were buried in different with bodies of strangers.
Sixty-nine of the 83 remains yet to be exhumed are buried at Mamelodi West cemetery while 14 are in Rebecca Street cemetery, Pretoria.
South Africa was awakened to the grim reality of capital punishment on November 22, 1883 when Kgosi Mampuru II, a BaPedi king, was executed for public revolt and violence. The prison where political prisoners were hanged was later named after him.
The same prison was home of former Paralympian Oscar Pistorius for a year when he was convicted of killing his girlfriend in 2013.
The execution of Kgosi Mampuru was reported as far as the United States.
The New York Times of December 19, 1886 wrote: “Mampuru was led naked to the jail yard in the presence of 200 whites. The first rope used broke when the trap was sprung and Mampuru fell into the pit below. He was dragged out, however, and another attempt to hang him was successful.”
In the late 1960s, South Africa had the highest rate of executions in the world. Abolitionist lawyer Professor Barend van Niekerk estimated that 47 per cent of executions in the world took place in South Africa.
Between 1985 and 1988, South Africa had the second highest execution rate in the world behind Iran.
In fact, in 1987, South Africa executed more people than China and the US combined, countries with much higher population figures.
Current Justice Minister Michael Masutha attributes this to racial disparities in which the imposition of capital punishment was in the hands of white judges.
“Particular judges were notorious for imposing the death sentence, an indicator of the arbitrary nature of its imposition,” he said.
“In addition, access to a proper legal defence was often not available to impoverished and sometimes illiterate black South Africans languishing in prison, who were subjected to court cases held in Afrikaans in which they heard and spoke through an interpreter,” he adds.
Prison authorities held those on Death Row under stringent controls to avoid the possibility of suicide.
Lights were kept on all night while prisoners were watched with a hawk’s eye.
The prisoner would then be moved to the ‘pot’, a waiting section reserved for their last seven days alive.