The Cradock Four

Martyrs of The Struggle – Murdered by the Security Forces in 1985

Their noble ideals betrayed by the SACP and ANC government

These biographies have been compiled over seven years (2003-2009) from research comprising material from archives, both inquests, magazine and newspaper reports and articles, the TRC Report and the transcriptions of the hearings, books, interviews with relatives, and the internet. I apologise for any errors that may have crept in during the editing, and would appreciate receiving any information which could add to our knowledge of these men and the events which took place.

Sparrow Mkonto Biography

Sparrow Mkonto (b 24/12/51) was a senior office bearer of the Cradock Residents' Association (Cradora). He had been taught by Matthew Goniwe at school, although he left after Std 8 and worked for the Railways, where he joined the railway workers’ union.

The average wage of a railway worker in Cradock in 1983 was R242/month. But Sparrow lived in a house where he had to pay rent of R59.03/month. They had no amenities. Their bucket toilet was in a small shack outside the house. There was no electricity or hot water. The roads were rutted and dusty, there were no stormwater drains, and no social amenities. The new houses had poor workmanship, there was little employment and people who had jobs did not earn a good living.

This led to the formation of the Cradock Ratepayers’ Association (Cradora) in August 1983. People were cross. Cradoya (Cradock Youth Association) affiliated to the United Demoratic Front in December 1983.

Sparrow was a good soccer player, and president of a local soccer club. He loved listening to reggae, and was intelligent and reserved. Sindiswa, His widow, is a pre-school teacher who grew up playing with him as a child. She married Sparrow in 1982. They had one child, Lonwabo.

Before his death Sparrow had been detained, tortured, threatened and harassed. His work in the railway union had attracted the attention of the Security Police, who conspired with his employers to fire him on a spurious charge. It was a common tactic of the Security Police to destabilise the economic situation of activists by branding them as “communists”, having them fired, transferred or by creating other financial problems for them.

On more than one occasion, Sparrow was taken to the Cradock Security Police headquarters, where he was assaulted and beaten before being released. He made a statement about it to a lawyer, and laid charges against the police. The police never investigated. Later, his wife, Sindiswa was fired from her job as well, on the pretext that her “husband was a communist”.

Sindiswa remembers the days when Cradock was united by Cradora, the ANC Women’s League and the ANC Youth League, as a “magical time”.

Sparrow’s older brother, Makahaya, is a headmaster and one of Sindiswa’s colleagues is Lindelwa Mhlauli, Sicelo’s younger sister.

Sparrow was part of the second layer of leadership Goniwe was developing as a counter-strategy to the detention of leaders by the Security Police. He travelled with Matthew and Fort to Port Elizabeth on 27 June, 1985. Matthew was to attend a weekly UDF meeting in Port Elizabeth. Fort was driving the car. At the last moment, one of Matthew’s old school friends, Sicelo Mhlauli, turned up. He was on holiday from Oudtshoorn, where he was a headmaster, and he decided to join the expedition to PE to “catch up on old times” with Matthew.

After Matthew’s meeting, the four men left Port Elizabeth at 21h10. None of them were seen alive again.

A two-year inquest started in 1987 (Inquest # 626/87) under the Inquests Act # 58 of 1959 and was headed by Magistrate E de Beer. He found that they had been killed by “unknown persons” and that “no-one was to blame”. The inquest, which ended on 22 February 1989, was referred to as “kukudlala oku” which, in Xhosa, means “nothing serious about it”, giving a clue as to how the local populace viewed it.

The second inquest was reopened in 1992, by President FW de Klerk, after the disclosure on 22 May 1992 by New Nation newspaper of a Top Secret military signal sent shortly before their deaths, calling for the "permanent removal from society" of Goniwe, Calata and Goniwe’s cousin, Mbulelo.

The second inquest ran for 18 months in terms of the Inquests Amendment. It began on 29 March 1993  and on 25 March, FW  de Klerk said all government documents had been made available to the Eastern Cape Attorney General.

But a source at Eastern Province Command claimed the SADF team sent to investigate the leak of the signal document simply cleaned up all the evidence before the Attorney General arrived.

Judge Neville Zietsman, delivering his verdict, found that the security forces were responsible for their deaths, although no individual could be named as responsible.

"In my opinion there is prima facie proof that it was members of the security forces that in fact carried out the murders. It was proved further that Mathew Goniwe was a thorn in the flesh of the security forces . . . referred to as an enemy of the state whose activities had to be curtailed or terminated,” the judge said.

“It has also been proved prima facie in my opinion, that the signal sent by Colonel (Lourens) du Plessis on the instructions of Brigadier “Joffel” van der Westhuizen to Major General van Rensburg was a recommendation that Matthew Goniwe, Mbulelo Goniwe and Fort Calata should be killed and that this was the meaning Colonel du Plessis and Brigadier van der Westhuizen intended the signal to have."

The judge named police colonels Harold Snyman and Eric Winter and SADF officers Brigadier “Joffel” van der Westhuizen, Colonel Lourens du Plessis and Major-General Johannes van Rensburg, but said: "The problem is that we do not know what happened to the signal after it had been received by Van Rensburg . . . There is no evidence to prove that the recommendation in the signal was adopted and carried out. There is no evidence to prove that the person or persons who murdered Matthew Goniwe and the others knew of the signal or its content."

Judge Zietsman also said the security forces had conducted a thorough cover-up of the murders. The families subsequently filed a claim for damages against the SADF and the SAP and this was eventually settled.

Facing the hurt of decades of institutionalized racism, in 1994 the government formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to allow amnesty for politically motivated crimes. The live broadcasts exposed to the country the powerful emotions experienced by the audience. The TRC, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, took three years to complete their work (1996-1998).

The families told the TRC about their experiences at a hearing in East London in April 1996. The Eastern Cape TRC chair, the Rev Bongani Finca opened the Cradock hearings on 10 February, 1997. A second hearing was held, also in February.

Seven men applied for amnesty for this crime: five members of the Port Elizabeth Security Police, an army colonel and the notorious commander of the Vlakplaas hit squad, Colonel Eugene de Kock, known amongst his colleagues as ”Prime Evil”.

The PE policemen were Security Police chief Colonel Harold Snyman, his deputy, Major-General Nicholas Janse van Rensburg, Captain Johan Martin "Sakkie" van Zyl, the man who allegedly led the hit squad, Lt Eric Alexander Taylor, Sgt Gerhardus Johannes Lotz, and SADF colonel Hermanus Barend du Plessis.

The seven began their testimony before Mr Justice Ronnie Pillay in Centenary Hall, Ntshekisa Street, Port Elizabeth, in February. Their amnesty applications detailed their version of the murders: Taylor said he and five others had staked out the PE-Cradock road. At about 10pm the car was spotted and they followed in two cars. Before Middleton they overtook the activists and blocked the road. Taylor said: “At about 23h00 on 27 June 1985 these four identified activists were intercepted in the vicinity of the Olifantshoek (sic) pass (it’s actually called Olifantskop Pass).

“(They) were transported together with Van Zyl, Taylor and Lotz to an area near St George Beach near Port Elizabeth, where (security policemen) Mgoduka, Faku and (askari) Sakati later joined us. The four men were handcuffed, separated and driven back towards PE under the impression they were being detained. The convoy turned off at Bluewater Bay, near the Scribante race track. (The black Security Policemen were murdered in 1989 by their white colleagues when they threatened to spill the beans).

Bloemhof farmer Mrs Dorris Butters and her driver Mr Ntonti Vusani said they had been stopped at a Security Forces roadblock near Bluewater Bay at 6.30pm on June 27, although there is no official record of the roadblock. They say the roadblock was on freeway near the Bluewater Bay off-ramp, and was the biggest roadblock she had ever seen. Police claimed the roadblock had been a week before.

Sicelo and Sparrow were abducted in one car, Matthew and Fort in another. Another cop drove the Ballade. Harold Snyman had told them: “It was between us. Nobody has to know about this except ourselves.”

Van Zyl said that after he and Lotz took Matthew’s car to a remote place and burned it, they returned to collect Sparrow. Van Zyl was alone with Sparrow in the car, intending to take him to another remote place and stab him to death. He said that while he was driving, Sparrow, sitting in the seat behind him, had managed somehow to get his feet through his handcuffs, bringing his hands in front of his body, and then tried to strangle Van Zyl from the back seat.

Van Zyl said he had a gun on the floor and, while stopping the car, and being strangled from behind, had managed to get this gun off the floor and shoot a shot behind his head (shooting Mkonto in the head). He had then stopped the car, freed himself from Mkonto’s stranglehold, got out, pulled Mkonto out of the car and shot him in the head.

He then went to a rendezvous with three black members of the Security Police, whom he had ordered to help them with the murders. They left their minibus behind and travelled with Van Zyl. When they got to the body, he ordered Sgt Faku, a member of the PE Security Police, to stab the dead man and set the body on fire. The other black security policemen apparently with Van Zyl were Glen Mgoduka, and a turned ANC guerrilla, or Askari, called Xolile Shepherd Sekati.

These policemen were killed by their colleagues in the infamous Motherwell Four bombing, in which their police vehicle was booby trapped with explosives and blown up by their colleague, Gideon Nieuwoudt (now deceased). The reason they were murdered was because they had threatened to blow the whistle on their white colleagues who had covered up the murder of the Cradock Four.

The TRC heard applicants tell them how authorisation for such irregular and illegal actions had been given at the highest level. At a meeting of the senior national and divisional leadership of the Security Police in early 1985, President PW Botha had told them to bring the situation under control by “whatever means possible”.

Further evidence of the condoning of illegal actions by junior officers by their political and police commanders was the “consistent failure to discipline”, the numerous cover-ups and “sweeping” that occurred after crimes were committed, in many instances by more senior policemen.

The TRC also said that while former president FW de Klerk and others had consistently denied knowing about illegal actions by the security forces, the TRC was struck by the fact that, in numerous cases, nobody appeared to have asked any questions. It showed a modus operandi and a line of command similar across the country, which encouraged a “culture of impunity”.

Lower ranks were also inducted into covert and unlawful operations by their commanders, which, combined with the heightened sense of being at war, a strong hierarchical structure in the Security Police, made those who were drawn into such operations feel privileged and honoured.

FW de Klerk’s suggestion that such activity was unauthorised and undertaken by “bad apples” does not hold up to the evidence before the TRC, which suggests that those in command of the Security Police were well aware of the existence and effectiveness of covert, illegal operations, and those with a long history of committing abuses were usually promoted and rewarded, and the political masters of these men did not stand by them and take responsibility for the abuses, but denied them instead.

Mkonto died of gunshot wounds to head and a stab wound in his heart. The firearm used, an M22 manufactured in France, was one of only a couple of hundred in the country.

The police claim they returned to the Sanlam building and destroyed the files kept on their victims. But other police witnesses said the files were only destroyed in 1990.

The investigating officer was Warrant Officer SJ Els, who was sent to Veeplaas on June 28 1985 where he found a badly burnt body. Police claim they were alerted to the body lying in the bush by a Xhosa initiant.

Els found bullet shells nearby, noted knife wounds on the corpse’s chest and a strong petrol smell. Els then went to Bluewater Bay where another burnt body had been found. This would turn out to be Sicelo Mhlauli.

Somerset East cops said they saw Matthew’s car leave Cookhouse at 1pm on Thursday 27 June. A reporter told Nyameka Goniwe that a body had been found. When people from Cradock went there to search, they were watched by a car. When they tried to follow the car, it drove away fast.

The families went down to the Government mortuary in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth on 29 June, 1985, to identify the bodies of Sparrow and Sicelo. The families were only allowed to see the bodies from a distance, and from behind a glass panel. Both Mhlauli and Mkonto were handcuffed and tied with rope. Nyameka Goniwe fears that while Sparrow and Sicelo’s bodies were found, Fort and Matthew were still being interrogated. People had scanned the area where their bodies were later found. Where Sparrow and Sicelo were found, there was petrol all around, the bodies were still wet, and there were lots of bloodstains. When Matthew and Fort were found, there were no signs of bloodstains.

The funeral was held on July 20, and was addressed by Allan Boesak, Beyers Naude and Steve Tshwete. A message from ANC leader-in-exile Oliver Tambo was read to the tens of thousands of people who gathered. President PW Botha responded with a State of Emergency in the Eastern Cape the next day (the following year it would be extended around the country). Victoria Mxenge, who also spoke at the funeral, was stabbed and murdered 15 days later. The era of Apartheid hit squads had begun.

Sindiswa still asks herself: who put Sparrow’s ID book in a nondescript envelope and left it in the outside toilet at his home, after the funeral? Sparrow’s reference book number is 1-50529570. Whoever it was, had had personal contact with Sparrow, because he carried it with him all the time.