When 74-year-old Nkwenkwe Gaqa talks about the exhumation of the remains of his fellow villagers hanged in Pretoria in 1964, he sobs – because he miraculously escaped the noose.
Tears run down his face, before he says: “On that day I saw them, they walked past our cells, they were pale. We knew that they were going to the gallows. The warrior song they sang pierced through our hearts as we held on to the bars, seeing them for the last time.”
He said one of those hanged was teenager Mbhekaphantsi Vulindlela.
“He was an 18-year-old who was a completely innocent soul who was hanged because of hatred.”
Gaqa is from Bhaziya village near Mthatha. He and 22 other men from the village were arrested by police in 1963 after five white people were killed in a quarry near their village.
They were accused of and found guilty of their murder and sentenced to death by hanging in Pretoria. They appealed the sentence but the appeal was dismissed.
Their hanging, Gaqa believes, was politically motivated as they were all members of the Pan African Congress.
For the first time in 42 years, he spoke this week about the fateful events that occurred in 1963. “We could not sleep at our homes for weeks. We were young and politically active but there was no reason for us to kill white people as those who were killed gave jobs to our local people and were staying in our village,” he said.
He said of the 23 men arrested only Dumisa Dambalaza, Mtalatala Xego, Sihelegu Vulindlela, Mili Poli, Siwana Mhlahleli, Bawukazi Mangqikani, Sandunge Vulindlela, Mbhekaphantsi Vulindlela, Bonase Vulindlela, Nqaba Memani, Light Manqikani, Bennet Mpetu and Maliza Vulindlela were hanged.
“Suddenly this village made headlines. Remember this is happening at the time of the Rivonia Trial, when fears were that Mandela and the others were to be hanged.
“When it was announced that we had received the death penalty, we sobbed – we said that was it, it was over.
“But back home we were heroes, yet our immediate families were left without breadwinners…What still puzzles me is how I miraculously survived the noose. We knew we were going to die together.”
Bonase Vulindlela’s wife, Noluzile, 86, told the Dispatch that when she thought of that period, her life travelled back in time. “We were up there in Pretoria when they were hanged; we took the train to witness that.
“Once there, we were told that when we hear a siren, we must know that’s when they are hanged. You can imagine, we painfully waited for that sound of a siren… when it finally rang, we wanted to reverse the time; we couldn’t.”
Today she’s happy that the remains of her husband and those of the other activists were returning home. “I will die happy, knowing my husband, our hero, is buried at home.”
Of the 11 who were spared from the gallows, only two are still alive.
National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Advocate Luzuko Mfaku said the process to exhume the remains of those hanged might take six months. — email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
Village was a PAC hotbed
Many villagers in Mthatha’s Bhaziya community were actively involved in politics in 1963, joining the PAC immediately it broke away from the ANC.
Among the young PAC operatives was 21-year-old Nkwenkwe Gaqa, who became actively involved in the underground operations of the banned political organisation.
“We were recruiting and making our voices heard by the apartheid leaders. No one was considered young then, we were all fighting for one thing, the freedom of this country,” he said.
But on a night in 1963, white construction workers were killed in a quarry near their village. The next day, men from the village were accused of the murders.
Police searched for them but they managed to run to a nearby mountain where they stayed for weeks, before moving to the homes of relatives in other villages, where police pounced on them.
The criminal case was transferred from Mthatha to Kokstad and, after they were found guilty and sentenced, they were moved to Pretoria’s death row.
He said they appealed their sentence.
“But a week or two later the court results came saying that our appeal was dismissed.”
Today Gaqa, who did not know why he and others were spared from the noose, is at home in Bhaziya, surviving on his special pension from the government.
“I can’t wait to see the remains of those heroes who died for the liberation of this country.” — email@example.com
Still questions 52 years after hanging
Bhaziya activist Bonase Vulindlela left six young children behind when he was hanged in July 1964 after being charged and convicted with other villagers of killing white construction workers.
One child, Mncekeleli Tyopho, was four when his father was arrested. Today, at the age of 56, he still battles to understand why so many people from their village were hanged.
“This is the only village in the entire country that experienced this. A dark cloud loomed over this village. Many of those who were hanged were illiterate people who couldn’t speak for themselves, or defend themselves.”
Tyopho said their father’s death robbed them of the best things in life, like education.
“You can imagine a young wife losing a husband and who had to look after six children. It was difficult for the family. We would go to bed for days without food in our stomachs.
“The women who lost their husbands were constantly harassed by police because their husbands were accused of murdering white people,” said Tyopho.
Tyopho said they could not wait for their father’s remains to be returned home. “We are happy for our mother as she will finally see the grave of her husband.” — firstname.lastname@example.org