Digging Up the Dirt

Article excerpt

Byline: Kim Gurney and Scott Johnson

A forensics team is tracking down South Africa's disappeared--and reopening some very cold cases.

One June day in 1986, security agents from South Africa's apartheid regime abducted 10 black teenagers from Mamelodi township, 40 miles from Johannesburg, injected them with a coma-inducing drug, and left them to burn to death in a staged vehicle explosion. The grisly fate of the "Mamelodi 10" became a poignant symbol of apartheid-era abuses, and then of South Africa's brave attempt to deal with them in a nonpunitive way: in 1999, some of the killers confessed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and were granted amnesty.

But the story didn't end there. More than a decade later, following the TRC's recommendation, the bones of those teenagers are being dug up in a thorny Winterveld cemetery north of Pretoria. "These are the unsung heroes of the struggle," says Madeleine Fullard, who is directing the team looking for the bodies. "They were not guerrillas. They were abducted, held and tortured. They died the worst kind of deaths."

Fullard is the head of South Africa's Missing Persons Task Team, set up three years ago to complete the unfinished business of the TRC: to find and exhume the hundreds of people "disappeared" at the hands of the apartheid government and whose cases were heard by the TRC. The task team aims to offer mourners the truth about their loved ones' final resting places. It has located dozens of graves over the past couple of years. And its advanced forensic work is attracting attention from elsewhere in Africa, where decades of conflict have left legions of unidentified bodies.

Within South Africa, however, the team's work is raising uncomfortable questions. After the restoration of majority rule in 1994, when the country opted to set up the TRC to deal with apartheid-era crimes, it resolved to forgo mass Nuremberg-style prosecutions. Officials and their henchmen would be granted amnesty on two key conditions: that their crimes proved politically motivated, and that they came clean about the deeds. Those who lied or failed to fully disclose their criminal involvement could still be prosecuted.

Now some of what Fullard and her team are digging up is clashing with the official TRC histories and could undermine the amnesties granted a decade ago, setting in motion new prosecutions. …