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Address by the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Michael Masutha, MP, (Adv) during the exhumation ceremony of the remains of political activists, Rebecca Cemetery Tshwane, 14 December 2016

Program Director
Executive Mayor of the City of Tshwane; Cllr Solly Msimanga
Families of our departed cadres
Freedom Park CEO; Ms Jane Mufamadi
Eastern Cape MEC for Sports Arts and Recreation; Miss Pemmy Majodina
Chief of Mphuthi village; Chief Minenkulu Joyi
National Director of Public Prosecutions
Argentinian Ambassador; Mr Javier Figueroa
PAC leadership present
Members of Azanian Peoples Liberation Army (APLA)
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

Let me rehash the words of the late President of the PAC, Robert Mangaliso Sobukhwe when he said “We are here today to rededicate ourselves to the cause of Afrika, to establish contact beyond the grave, with the great African heroes and assure them that their struggle was not in vain.”  Today the families are here after travelling hundreds of kilometres from Mphuthi village of Baziya in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape to witness the exhumation of the remains of their loved ones who were cowardly hanged on death row by the ruthless apartheid government for their political conviction.

On 23 March 2016, which is a Human Rights month, we gathered at Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional centre to launch the Gallows Exhumation Project. The launch was preparing for today’s ceremony to exhume the remains of political prisoners who were judicially executed between 1960 and 1990. Let me take this opportunity and apologise, especially to the families for the delay in conducting of this exhumation, we had to ensure that Cabinet was properly briefed on such an important project hence the delay. As ANC led government we recognize the important role played by other liberation movements like Azapo and the PAC in the struggle for liberating our people. It is in that context that this project had to receive the blessing of our Cabinet led by President Jacob Zuma.  

Program Director
Allow me to give an account of how these cadres ended up on death row. The PAC set up POQO, described in Mayihlome News as liberation army using traditional methods of fighting society to launch the armed struggle and defend the people from being mowed down by the merciless security apparatus.  On 5 February 1963, a large group of about sixty Poqo members from the village of Mputhi in the Eastern Cape launched an attack on a road construction camp beside the Mbashe River on the road between Mthatha and Engcobo. The five occupants of two caravans at the camp were attacked and killed. Mr Derek Thompson was burnt to death inside his caravan, while Mr Norman Grobbelaar, his wife Elizabeth and two teenage daughters Dawn and Edna were hacked to death.

Following the attack, large numbers of local residents were arrested and charged. Thirteen Mputhi residents were sentenced to death and of these, twelve were hanged. The twelve were hanged on 3 July 1964. While the gallows only accommodated seven individuals at a time, they were hanged in two groups on the same day. The first group was hanged at 6 am and the second group at 6.45 am. Among those hanged were five members of the Vulindlela family, including eighteen year old Mbhekaphantsi Vulindlela. One of those sentenced to death, Mr Thembeni Swelindawo, died of natural causes while on death row and was buried as a pauper at Mamelodi cemetery.  His remains will also be exhumed.

Another ten individuals were given death sentences but these were later commuted to life imprisonment. Mr Tuse Nzaya and Mr Nokhele Nyakala died of natural causes while serving those life sentences and were buried as paupers at a place yet to be determined.

In a related incident, local Mputhi resident Goza Gaqa was killed by fellow residents on 26 March 1963 as it was believed he had given information to the police regarding the Mbashe River attack. Mr Dumisa Galeni was sentenced to death and hanged on 22 May 1964 for this attack and was buried in Mamelodi cemetery as a pauper. His body will also be exhumed. Seven others served life sentences for the killing of Mr Gaqa.

In all, thirteen people were hanged for the events surrounding the Mbashe River incident, three died of natural causes in prison, and many others served life sentences.

Ladies and Gentlemen
Historically, South Africa had one of the highest rates of judicial execution in the world.  In the late 1960s, a study estimated that 47% of all executions in the world took place in South Africa. In the period from 1985 to 1988 South Africa had the second highest execution rate in the world, second only to Iran.  In 1987 South Africa executed more people than China or the United States of America, countries with much higher population figures.

The racial disparities in the imposition of the death sentence at the hands of exclusively white judges in South Africa are well documented. Particular judges were notorious for imposing the death sentence, an indicator of the arbitrary nature of its imposition. 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.

It was common for black people convicted of murdering whites to be sentenced to death, but very rare for whites who murdered blacks to be given the death sentence.  A study of death sentences in one year found that 47% of blacks convicted of murdering whites were given the death sentence as opposed to no death sentences at all for whites convicted of murdering blacks. Between 1960 and 1990, at least 140 individuals were hanged for politically motivated offences.

As a progressive force, South Africa has joined hands with many countries calling for the end of the death penalty. Our democratic government took a conscious decision to entrench the right to life in our Constitution, given the problems attached to the death penalty, some of which have been well pronounced by our Constitutional Court. By committing ourselves to a world without the death penalty, founded on the recognition of human rights, we are required to value these two rights above all others. This must be demonstrated by states in everything they do; including the way they punish criminals.

We hope that the recovery of these remains will go some way towards relieving the decades of pain experienced by the families of those hanged, and at last allow them to be buried with the dignity they deserve.

Today we remember the sacrifices made by those who were hanged in course of the struggle for a democratic South Africa, including Benjamin Moloise, Michael Lucas, the five Vulindlela family members hanged together, Thelle Simon Mogoerane, and so many others.  We salute them the same way we salute other struggle heroes like Robert Sobukhwe, Zephania Motopeng, Jeff Masemola, Clarence Makwethu, John Nyathi Pokela, Sabelo Phama, Benny Alexander, Templeton Ntantala, Potlako Leballo and many more.

I thank you!