12 political prisoners who died at Robben Island and buried in mass grave, memorialised

Unveiling of the 12 Disciples of Justice Memorial. Picture: Leon Lestrade

Unveiling of the 12 Disciples of Justice Memorial. Picture: Leon Lestrade

Published Mar 27, 2024


Cape Town - At the far end of Stikland Cemetery in Bellville lies a significant triangular monument. It honours the lives of 12 political prisoners who died on Robben Island and were buried in a mass grave at the former whites-only cemetery.

The “12 Disciples of Justice” memorial exhibition aims to honour the lives of political prisoners Sipho Khalipha, Frank Mani, Matinise Batyi, Solomon Makisi, Charlie Mkhele, Lameki Kula, Jimmy Simon, Zincwasile Mvalwana, Mountain Langben, Mlungisi Mqalu, John Poni and Reuben Maliwa.

The political prisoners were members of the ANC and the PAC.

The Robben Island Museum (RIM) hosted the unveiling on Tuesday with the families of the 12 political prisoners, representatives of the PAC and ANC, key role-players, former political prisoners and Justice Albie Sachs.

Thembela Mvalwana said his grandfather, a PAC member, was taken by the police from his home in the Eastern Cape before being sentenced and imprisoned on Robben Island in 1963, at the age of 50.

“I know it’s cold there, but he never survived. He died quickly there. They said it was natural causes but the one that they were together with, they said they were beating him a lot.

“So we couldn’t get the body. They sent a telegram to my grandmother but when they (family) asked for a body, the police said to her the term was not finished. So his term was not finished until now.”

He was sentenced to five years imprisonment and died while in prison.

“Before, we came here with big hopes that we were going to get the bones. That was our intention, but when we came here, we couldn’t find them.

“Robben Island tried to create closure, we talked together about closure, by building this memorial, and we did several events, but the only thing that I can say to you is we never got the bones.”

RIM CEO Abigail Thulare said the 12 political prisoners were secretly buried in a mass grave.

“Between 2009 and 2013, Robben Island, in partnership with the National Prosecuting Authority Missing Persons Task team, the South African Heritage Resources Agency, the City of Cape Town Parks and Cemetery, the Eastern Cape Department of Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture, the Ex-Political Prisoners Association and also the families of the 12 political prisoners that were buried as paupers at the Stikland Cemetery, conducted a pilgrimage on Robben Island and also here at the cemetery.

“The purpose of that pilgrimage was to respond to the request of the 12 affected families in getting the human remains of their loved ones who were buried, unfortunately, without their knowledge.”

Between 2010 and 2012, the NPA missing persons task team conducted a series of forensic excavation tests.

However, there were no positive results due to the manner in which the 12 political prisoners were buried. The exact location of the mass grave at the cemetery is yet to be found.

RIM research unit manager Nolubabalo Tongo-Cetywayo said the prisoners there from 1963 and 1964. Many of them were in their thirties and forties, but there were a few in their sixties.

“They were detained because they were fighting for justice. They were fighting against apartheid so that everybody should have a free and liberated country.”