Apartheid skeletons. Picture: James Oatway
Apartheid skeletons. Picture: James Oatway

Madeleine Fullard is crouching in an open grave in the Winterveld cemetery near Soshanguve, Tshwane. It is nearly noon, but the cold June air cuts through the sunlight.

At Fullard’s feet lies the newly exhumed skeleton of a man who died after being shot twice: once in the jaw, and once in his arm. The hole in his jaw offers a clear testament of how his life ended.

But this man is not the subject of Fullard’s determined, painstaking scraping and digging. The historian, who has headed the missing persons task team at the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) for more than a decade, is searching for what she calls the world’s "most precious" treasure: the bones of those who "disappeared" during apartheid, often as a consequence of brutal, state-sanctioned murder.

Evidence before the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) revealed in sharp and often sickening detail how many of these men and women were ambushed, abducted, tortured and murdered, their bodies later burnt or blown up so nothing but fragments remained.

Those bones would sometimes be dumped in the coffins of other paupers, buried in unmarked graves by the state.

Fullard dusts red earth from the bones beneath her — the fragmentary remains of apartheid victims are, she says, often found in plastic shopping bags nestled alongside someone else’s skeleton.

"This a treasure hunt," she later says. "It’s a treasure hunt for the most precious treasure in the whole world. I will always say that. It’s somebody’s child."

Since its inception in 2005, the missing persons task team has recovered the remains of 138 activists who disappeared between 1960 and 1994. The team was formed in response to one of the TRC recommendations: that there be a concerted effort by the state to track down the remains of those people presumed to have been killed by apartheid security forces, but whose bodies were never recovered.

On this cold morning in the Winterveld cemetery, the team has exhumed three paupers’ graves in search of four of those "disappeared": Samuel Ledwaba, Jeffrey Sibaya and Matthews Lerutla, all 17; and Oupa Mohale, who disappeared on August 17 1987 in Mamelodi during political protests.

Locating SA's 'disappeared': Madeleine Fullard at Mamelodi cemetery. Picture: James Oatway
Locating SA's 'disappeared': Madeleine Fullard at Mamelodi cemetery. Picture: James Oatway

According to evidence led at the TRC, Vlakplaas assassin Joe Mamasela lured Sibaya and an unidentified companion to their deaths by promising he could help them get military training abroad. Instead, they were led into an ambush and killed.

Police witnesses told the TRC Sibaya was a "known militant" the security police had tried, and failed, to recruit. They then decided to "eliminate" him, and abducted, beat, kicked and finally strangled him and his friend.

As she peers into one of the graves, Fullard says she never understood why apartheid security police chose to murder their victims by strangulation. It’s a horrifically visceral method that requires the killers to spend minutes squeezing the life out of their increasingly desperate victims.

"They told me they didn’t want to shoot them … because then there would be blood in the car," she says, pausing. "I hadn’t thought of it like that."

Fullard’s years as a researcher for the TRC, and her subsequent tenure as the head of the task team, have exposed her to the disturbing but often banal considerations involved in such murders, and the attempts to conceal them.

As in so many other cases, the men who murdered Sibaya and his companion took them to a remote spot in the then Bophuthatswana and blew their bodies up with a land mine. Fullard and her team have spent years searching for what remains survived.

Their task often seems near impossible. But, despite confusing or nonexistent records, and the haphazard disposal of remains in unmarked graves in sprawling cemeteries, the team does sometimes find that "most precious treasure".

Just metres from where Fullard and her team are searching, they uncovered the graves of nine of the "Mamelodi 10" — a group of schoolchildren murdered by Mamasela, special forces operatives and the security police.

Evidence before the TRC’s amnesty committee revealed how, like Sibaya, the teenagers had been lured to their deaths by the promise that Mamasela would arrange military training for them in Botswana from the ANC. He drove the group to a deserted spot near Nietverdiend, near the Botswana border, getting them drunk on beer as they travelled. The drunk youths were injected with an unknown substance by masked special forces members and lost consciousness. They were then driven to Bophuthatswana, where the minibus they were travelling in was packed with explosives and blown up.

Using drone footage, evidence given to the TRC and police, and records from mortuaries and cemeteries, Fullard and her team eventually found the teenagers’ remains in a series of unmarked burial plots in the Winterveld cemetery.

Maria Ntuli, whose 17-year-old son, Jeremiah, was one of the Mamelodi 10, had waited for a decade to learn for certain that her son was dead. He had disappeared in June 1986; in 1996 she read in newspaper reports of TRC hearings that he had been murdered by Mamasela and the security police.

"It was painful for me to hear, after 10 years, that my son is dead," Ntuli says. "I thought he was in exile and he [was] going to come back … but he never came back. I wanted to find his remains so I [could] know what happened; where my son’s body is."

She spent years lobbying the NPA, and the now defunct Scorpions unit, to find the remains of her son and his friends.

Ntuli recalls how she watched the task team exhume those remains in 2007 — two decades after her son left her home to attend a party, and never returned.

"We went there for two weeks, every day, all of the mothers [of the Mamelodi 10] … I think it was in March, Human Rights Day, when we found them," she says.

"The day they told me it was his DNA [in the bone fragments], I felt sorry for myself, for him and what had happened … But I also felt well. Because I did what I said I was going to do, and I now know where my son is."

Madeleine Fullard, head of the NPA’s missing persons task team, at a grave site in Red Hill, north of Durban. Picture: TEBOGO LETSIE/Sunday Times
Madeleine Fullard, head of the NPA’s missing persons task team, at a grave site in Red Hill, north of Durban. Picture: TEBOGO LETSIE/Sunday Times

The task team recovered the remains of all but one of the Mamelodi 10: Samuel Ledwaba, one of the three teens the unit is now trying to find, using drone footage of the entire Winterveld cemetery to identify possible sites.

The thought of giving up on a search too early, and not finding remains that may be only a few steps away, is something that consumes Fullard. "When I think about that, I feel sick," she says.

Fullard knows her team works against significant odds. In cases where the remains of victims have been disposed of in clandestine ways, she says, it is "almost impossible" to find and recover those bones without the help of the perpetrators.

One of those was Eugene de Kock, the commanding officer of the apartheid police’s C10 counterinsurgency unit. His involvement in the brutal torture and murder of numerous anti-apartheid activists earned him the nickname "Prime Evil".

De Kock disclosed the full and horrific scope of C10’s crimes at the TRC, but was later convicted of dozens of crimes that had no political motive, and was sentenced to 212 years in jail. While imprisoned, he assisted the task team to recover the remains of several victims.

One of those victims was Phemelo Moses Ntehelang, whom De Kock and his Vlakplaas unit had beaten and tortured to the point of death in July 1989. An "askari", Ntehelang had gone from fighting for freedom in the military wing of the exiled ANC to working for De Kock after his capture by the security police. De Kock claimed he and his fellow Vlakplaas members had not intended to kill Ntehelang, who they suspected had "gone rogue", but had killed him accidentally.

Fullard recounts: "He was killed at Vlakplaas, and Vlakplaas operatives then drove his body to a remote private farm near Zeerust, right near the Botswana border, and buried him in a grave next to a river.

"We would never, ever, ever have found his remains if it were not for the assistance of the perpetrators in that case.

"We had to excavate for two weeks to try and find the remains because, after 30 years, no-one remembers exactly where the burial site is. We recovered his remains still wrapped in the green blanket from Vlakplaas that he’d been buried in. There were heavy stones all around his body."

This a treasure hunt. It’s a treasure hunt for the most precious treasure in the whole world … It’s somebody’s child
Madeleine Fullard

Fullard works alongside former Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) soldiers Ambrose Ndhlovu and John Mailane, investigators who often need to persuade perpetrators of apartheid-era killings to come clean about where they disposed of their victims.

"It is difficult for us as freedom fighters, but you know that you need to hold back your emotions because you are dealing with a national issue: closure for the families, friends and relatives of the comrade who passed on … We are doing a national duty," Ndhlovu says.

"We need to assist communities, we need to assist the whole country to have closure, even ourselves, even the perpetrators. All of us."

Getting the perpetrators who are still alive to talk is not easy, he says, particularly after the NPA began pursuing police officers implicated in the murders of slain or missing activists.

The first thing that comes to mind for perpetrators, he says, is: "If I reveal this, it simply means I’m going to be arrested, or I’m compromising myself in terms of being nearer to prison, so I better keep quiet."

Perpetrators also ask for assurances of immunity in exchange for information about where they disposed of bodies, he says.

That is not a guarantee the task team can give, meaning the ageing perpetrators who may be able to help have almost no incentive to do so.

This is an unintended consequence of the NPA’s recent decision, after years of inaction, to reopen apartheid-era inquests and pursue the prosecutions of some of the hundreds of self-confessed killers denied amnesty by the TRC.

The NPA is currently prosecuting four apartheid police officers for the murder of 23-year-old MK activist Nokuthula Simelane, abducted from the Carlton shopping centre in Joburg on September 10 1983.

Former commander of the Soweto intelligence unit Willem "Timol" Coetzee admitted responsibility for Simelane’s disappearance, but claimed she had been alive when he last saw her. He told the TRC that she had agreed to be a spy for the security police and was deployed to Swaziland, where he suggested she had been murdered by her ANC comrades.

His argument was countered by another police officer, who said Simelane had been murdered and buried in the Rustenburg area.

Coetzee is due to go on trial for her murder next month, when he and fellow retired apartheid police officers Msebenzi Radebe, Anton Pretorius and Frederik Mong will finally answer to evidence about her murder.

Simelane’s mother, Sizakele Simelane, died before the trial of her daughter’s accused killers could get under way. But she was clear that the criminal case against them would not bring the closure that recovering her daughter’s remains would.

"I do not care if these men go to jail," she said. "I just want to know that we have found her. They must tell us where she is. That is all I want."

Fullard says this is a common attitude. As we sit in the lounge of the task team’s prefab office, she points to letters sent to the team.

"We have so many letters from families writing to us," she says. She reads aloud from one: "We [the writer and her family] are not going to press charges against those who are responsible … We are just asking how to approach those responsible in order to obtain their remains."

Says Fullard: "There are people who have been waiting and looking for decades now. Many of them are very old, the perpetrators themselves are very old. What is going to be the way that we can get the information? Because once that small group of perpetrators dies, that’s it. We will never know. We will never know."

What it means

The remains of those who died in the struggle might never be found without help from their killers

The prospect of being forever in the dark haunts the family of Richard Mapela, who was 17 when he left his family home in Orlando East in 1977 to travel to Botswana. He subsequently joined MK and is believed to have been killed in one of the earliest skirmishes between security forces and MK soldiers, in 1979. His remains have never been recovered and, without them, his family say they can’t accept that he is dead.

"We can’t accept that he has passed on, because the apartheid police told us that he was dead, but then kept coming back to our house to look for him," says Mapela’s sister, Rose Matsabu. "So we don’t know."

She and her family say they refused to sell their now rundown home when developers tried to buy it, because they feared Mapela may come home "and then he would not find us".

They huddle in the cramped lounge, and Matsabu holds a T-shirt with her brother’s face on it over her torso. There is something quietly desperate about the plastic bags, filled with clues about her brother and what may have happened to him, positioned around her.

"I know I will see Richard in heaven one day," she says. "But I want him to know that we also tried our utmost to find out what happened to him … I want him to know that we didn’t forget him."