According to a website dedicated to their memory, late at night on June 27 1985, the four men who would become known as the Cradock Four were intercepted by the apartheid security forces at a roadblock near Port Elizabeth. Two had been targeted for assignation.
Matthew Goniwe, a teacher, Fort Calata, also a teacher, Sparrow Mkonto, a railway union activist, and Sicelo Mhlauli, a school headmaster, went missing that night. They were never seen alive again.
Their burnt bodies were later found in Port Elizabeth. On the day of their funeral, then-president PW Botha declared a State of Emergency.
Nelson Mandela said their deaths "marked a turning point in the history of our struggle".
"No longer could the regime govern in the old way. They were the true heroes of our struggle."
Wednesday was the 33rd anniversary of their disappearance. Here are nine things you should know about the Cradock Four:
- According to the South African History Archives (Saha), the security aparatus' involvement in their murders was denied for years, until a copy of the message with their death warrant was anonymously leaked to the then-Transkei minister of defence, none other than Major-General Bantu Holomisa. The message was proof of the state security forces' direct sanctioning of the murder of anti-apartheid activists at the highest levels.
- According to SABC TRC records, the four were on their way back from a United Democratic Front meeting. An inquest into their deaths was held in 1987, which did not determine the identity of the killers. But the inquest was reopened in 1998, and with the introduction of the document discovered by Holomisa, the security forces were formally identified as being responsible.
- A claim for damages filed by the families of the Cradock Four was settled by the former South African Defence Force (SADF) and the police. But the families still maintain that the truth about their deaths has never been properly ventilated.
- The families also wanted the bodies of the Cradock Four returned to them. Specifically, Mhlauli's wife wanted his hand returned to her. It was reportedly kept by the security police at Louis le Grange Square in Port Elizabeth, where it was kept in a jar.
- Six security policemen said to have been involved in the murders were denied amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1999, according to a report in The Star. Eric Alexander Taylor, Gerhardus Johannes Lotz, Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, Johan van Zyl and Hermanus Barend du Plessis were denied amnesty because they did not give full disclosures to the commission.
- The seventh member of the killing squad, the infamous former Vlakplaas commander Eugene de Kock, by then already serving a life sentence for murder, was granted amnesty in relation to his involvement in these murders.
- Van Zyl was the alleged mastermind behind the murders, according to a 1998 report by the South African Press Association. He reportedly admitted to planning and carrying out the police operation, and told the commission that the four were shot and stabbed to death by the security police. Representing the families of the Cradock Four, George Bizos reportedly suggested that Van Zyl was specifically sent to what is now Eastern Cape to "deal with" unrest in the area. Van Zyl denied this.
- Later in 1999, Bizos asked for the case to be reopened because new evidence had emerged — the minutes of a state security council meeting the year before the Cradock Four were killed. The TRC was undecided on the issue.
- In March 2016, Lotz, 56 at the time, killed himself. He left no clue as to why he committed suicide, but Goniwe's elder brother, Alex, told Business Day, "I suspect he could no longer live with what he did all those years ago. Committing such evil crimes will haunt you."