South African police are to open murder investigations into the deaths of two Soweto youths last seen 25 years ago in the presence of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of former president Nelson Mandela.
The police were compelled to act when the bodies of Lolo Sono and Sibuniso Tshabalala were exhumed from a deep paupers’ grave in Avalon Cemetery in Soweto, the giant black township on Johannesburg’s south-western outskirts.
At a cleared site amid gravestones surrounded by knee-high grass and yellow wildflowers, forensic experts dug deep into the red clay to find the shrouded corpses and take DNA samples to compare them with those taken from family members several months earlier.
Sono and Tshabalala “disappeared” in late November 1988 at the height of the troubles with Mrs Madikizela-Mandela’s murderous vigilante group, the so-called Mandela United Football Club (MUFC).
They were last seen alive in severely beaten states at Mrs Madikizela-Mandela’s Soweto home, just seven weeks before the murder on her premises of a more well known victim, 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi.
Evidence emerged yesterday that police and prosecutors had known for almost 25 years where and how the two youths were killed. A docket containing photos of their corpses with multiple stab wounds had been opened by police just a day after they disappeared – but it mysteriously went missing.
Three months ago, when it was revealed that the National Prosecuting Authority knew about the burial site and was considering opening the graves, officials of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) silenced the parents of Sono and Tshabalala.
The boys’ parents revealed they had been warned they must say nothing until after the ANC had held its four-yearly electoral congress last December. At that congress, Mrs Madikizela-Mandela, 76, came 79th of 80 people elected to the ANC’s National Executive Committee. In 2007, she had topped the poll.
Officials of the ANC and its former armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the National”), again tried to silence family members yesterday at the exhumation site as the forensic teams went about their task.
When John Sono, uncle of the murdered Lolo Sono, was asked by journalists if he wanted justice for the killing of his nephew, an ANC official shoved his hand in front of the microphone, saying: “No, no, he can’t answer that one.”
Katiza Cebekhulu is a former member of the MUFC now living in exile in Britain. Yesterday he reiterated to me evidence he first gave at South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Mr Cebekhulu – who told the commission he had watched Mrs Madikizela-Mandela stab Stompie Moeketsi – said he was also at her home when the badly beaten Lolo Sono was taken into the garage there on 13 November, 1988.
He said yesterday: “Winnie said, ‘Take him away’. I never saw him [Lolo] again. I think Winnie needs to tell a court where she wanted Lolo Sono taken away to. I believe he was killed. He had been beaten really badly, so I don’t think they would have taken him to hospital.
“What surprised me is that the South African government never made any effort to search for Lolo Sono or Sibuniso Tshabalala. They wanted to cover up many things.”
Mrs Caroline Sono, the stepmother of Lolo, has campaigned relentlessly for his burial site to be identified. Yesterday she condemned the attempt by the ANC to silence the parents.
She said: “Mrs Mandela should not be above the law. There seems to be no justice in this world, because once the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was over [in December 1997] and we had given our evidence, nobody in power contacted us.
“Winnie seems untouchable, but if it had been a son of hers who went missing the whole world would have been turned upside down.”
Nomsa Tshabalala, mother of Sibuniso, said: “She [Madikizela-Mandela] is the one who committed this atrocity … she knows what happened.”
Mrs Madikizela-Mandela has never been questioned by police or the National Prosecuting Authority about the disappearances of Lolo Sono.
The TRC, chaired by Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu, concluded in 1997 that the two youths were last seen alive at Mrs Madikizela-Mandela’s home, that she was involved in their abduction and “finds therefore that Madikizela-Mandela must accept responsibility for the disappearance of Lolo Sono and Sibuniso Tshabalala”.