The Gallows Exhumation Project

Exhumation of the 14 political prisoners hung in 1964, Rebecca Cemetery, Pretoria

Exhumation of the 14 political prisoners hung in 1964, Rebecca Cemetery, Pretoria

Family members of fourteen political prisoners executed under the apartheid regime will finally have somewhere to visit their loved ones after their bodies were exhumed on Wednesday as part of the country’s Gallows Exhumation Project, led by the Missing Person’s Task Team. The men, who were hung in Pretoria in July 1964, were members of the armed wing of the Pan African Congress, Poqo, and were purportedly involved in the Mbashe River incident which took place in February 1963. Five people, including a woman and two young girls, were attacked and killed, supposedly by members of Poqo, while camping near the Mbashe river.

This event, alongside continuing acts of sabotage carried out by MK, provoked John Forster, then Minister of Justice, to implement the General Law Amendment Act of May 1963. Commonly referred to as the Ninety-Day Law, the amendment allowed the police to arrest suspects without a warrant, and to hold them without trial for up to 90 days. The Amendment Act also introduced the ‘Sobukwe Clause’ which allowed people already convicted of political offences to be further detained. The clause was so named because it was used to keep PAC leader, Robert Sobukwe, on Robben Island for an additional six years.

At least 130 people were hanged for politically-related offences between 1960 and 1990, with the majority of the deceased receiving paupers’ funerals. The bodies of the men exhumed on Wednesday were buried three to a grave. With the remains finally being returned to the families, the men will now be given proper burials.

It is through projects like the Missing Persons Task Team and Durban’s Liberation Heritage Route that South African’s are able to get to grips with their past, and hopefully move forward together, as one nation.

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