/ 9 July 2022

Remains of cannabis farmers executed during apartheid to be repatriated

The 1957 police skirmish began on the plains of KwaZulu-Natal. Photo Delwyn Verasamy

The relatives of 22 cannabis farmers executed in 1957 by the apartheid government in a dagga clampdown, say that they are overjoyed that the spirits of their loved ones can finally find peace. 

Exhumation started on Tuesday at the Rebecca Street Cemetery in Pretoria. 

“Their spirits are haunting us as families,” said Gift Mdluli, a relative of one of the farmers, who were from Ngoba, in the Bergville area.   

The processes necessary for exhumation started in 2017. 

In 1956, the apartheid regime ambushed cannabis growers in Bergville, KwaZulu-Natal, in an effort to clear dagga crops, with five police officers murdered during the operation.

The ambush was the result of draft recommendations by the National Party in 1952 on a new policy that allowed officers to conduct search and destroy campaigns against cannabis growers. This was in response to international concern over the increase in cannabis trading, and that South Africa was connected to the trade. 

After the killings of the police officers, 22 men were tried, convicted of murder and hanged on 21 March 1957 at what is now called the Kgosi Mampuru ll Correctional Centre in Pretoria. 

“It is a relief for us that finally we are getting closure. These people need to be returned back to the village because we believe that these people have been causing spiritual problems for us because their spirits had not yet found peace,” Mdluli said.  

As he spoke, more than 40 men stood behind him, staring at a row of white paper lying on the dry grass of the cemetery field. The papers contained the names of the farmers, and had been placed on top of the plots where the bodies were said to be buried. 

Among those reading the names was Mbongeni Mdluli. He pushed a black shovel into the ground and dug a small hole before exhumation started on the patch of land where the bones of his father were buried. 

He smiled, saying:  “I am very happy, after a long time, our grandfathers and fathers have not come home and we’ve been crying after we found out that they were hanged for no reason. 

“I felt very broken when we couldn’t find them for a long period of time, showing that everything that was done to them was illegal, so now I am happy that today we got a chance to take the bones of my father and bury them where they should be.” 

Mdluli believes that the reburial of the bones will restore peace in the Ngoba area, which is plagued by violence.  

“Our neighbourhood in Ngoba has bad luck, it is always fighting with other areas around because our fathers and grandfathers left during a war. Therefore, as of today, we are able to fetch their spirits and bones. That will help the area from having bad luck because there has been no peace since they left.” 

It was comforting to Mdluli that his family — and the families of the other hanged farmers — would now have burial sites to visit, and that cultural ceremonies could be performed in honour of their loved ones.  

The repatriation ceremony started at the Kgosi Mampuru ll Correctional Centre with an address by Deputy Justice Minister Patekile Holomisa

Speaking to the relatives and correctional services officers, Holomisa said it was important that the farmers were remembered for their bravery and to preserve the country’s history. 

“We are consoled by the fact that the heroes that were hanged on 21 March did not die for nothing, their blood helped to emancipate this country. The dream for Africans to live a life of dignity and freedom on the land of their ancestors has been fulfilled even though there is still much that needs to be done to overcome the burden of inequality,” he said.   

After the minister’s address, the families were shown the area at the correctional centre where their loved ones spent their final moments. 

Okhahlamba local municipality councillor Vuyi Mvula said that reliving those final moments would allow an old wound to heal. 

“Even though we were not there, we can just tell that what they experienced was painful and traumatising. We shouldn’t revert back to the past, but when we see what happened to our heroes it makes it hard for us to forgive, even though we know we need to,” she said.   

The exhumation process took place over three days, and will be followed by a mass funeral on 16 July.  

The constitutional court ruled in favour of the private cultivation, consumption and use of cannabis in South Africa in 2018.