Friday Feature: The Mystery of the Cradock Four

Photo Retrieved from the South African History Archives website.

Goniwe usually went to Port Elizabeth every Wednesday to report to the United Democratic Front (UDF) leadership. As UDF organiser, Goniwe travelled a lot, mostly in his Honda Ballade, registration number CAT 8479, which had been given to him by the UDF for his work. On 24 June he called Derrick Swarts in Port Elizabeth (PE) to say he would come down a day later because he had to address a rally in Cradock on the Wednesday 26 June. The Security Police knew about his changed travel arrangements, they transcribed the call. It was Security Police practice to inform PE Branch if Goniwe was going to PE. Snyman or Hermanus du Plessis would be informed. Cradock Security Police chief Eric Winter and two other white Security Policemen left the office on the morning of the 27th, and did not say where they were going. They returned the following day, seeming anxious and secretive.

On 27 June 1985, Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlauli, left for Port Elizabeth at about 10am. Sicelo was an old childhood friend of Matthew’s. He was a school principal in Oudtshoorn, and was in Cradock for the holidays. He decided to go with Matthew “to catch up on old times”. The car was spotted at Cookhouse by police there, at around lunchtime. In the afternoon, Matthew attended meetings with his comrades.

His last meeting, at the house of UDF activist Michael Coetsee, finished at around 21h00 and the four left at about 21h10, after Matthew refused the invitation from his friend Derrick Swarts, to stay over and not travel at night. He told Derrick he didn’t spend enough time with his family and wanted to get home. He would only stop for the police.

It was the last time they were seen alive. The four were abducted from a car in which they were driving, and assassinated. Mystery surrounded the finding of the burnt-out car, with two different sets of number plates, and then, in two different areas, burnt bodies were found (Sparrow and Sicelo). The police could not explain how, if the activists had been under constant and intensified surveillance, and travelling together, they could have disappeared and been murdered. Days later, the bodies of Matthew and Fort were found, also burnt, stabbed and mutilated.

Two inquests failed to get to the truth, the second inquest opened after a newspaper, New Nation, on 8 May 1992, published a copy of a top-secret “signal message'” sent to the State Security Council on 7 June 1985 from the Eastern Province Joint Management Centre. The message detailed a telephone conversation between Brigadier CP “Joffel” van der Westhuizen and a General Van Rensburg, a senior member of the SSC secretariat. Three names, Matthew Goniwe, Mbulelo Goniwe and Fort Calata were targeted to be “permanently removed from society, as a matter of urgency.”

The second inquest in 1992 found the Security Forces responsible for their deaths, but could not make the crucial link between the actual killers who applied to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Amnesty, and the people who ordered the murders.

General Nic Janse van Rensburg, second in command of the Eastern Cape security branch at the time, told the TRC’s amnesty committee in 1998 that he had planned the operation, and believed it was the right thing to do. Janse Van Rensburg said he was surprised to hear other government officials in Pretoria, including the State Security Council, were considering reappointing Goniwe. Janse van Rensburg said he would have voted to eliminate Goniwe. Nic Janse Van Rensburg also quoted statements made by political leaders at the time, including president PW Botha and defence minister Magnus Malan, to the effect that "we must fight fire with fire" and "we are facing a total onslaught". Janse Van Rensburg said he, Du Plessis and Van Zyl had identified Goniwe and other UDF leaders as being behind the unrest in the region.

Van Rensburg admitted to trying to make the murders look like the work of vigilante groups or rival political groups such as the Azanian People's Organisation. He insisted the order to kill the activists came from his superior, Harold Snyman, who in turn received instructions from higher up. Snyman did not attend the hearings as he was receiving treatment for cancer (which later killed him).

Advocate George Bizos, for the families, said it appeared from documents produced at the hearing that one arm of the state regarded Goniwe's reappointment as a way to curtail unrest in the Cradock area, while the other was planning to kill him.

Nelson Mandela, when he visited their gravesite of Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlauli at the 10th anniversary of their death, said: “The death of these gallant freedom fighters 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 the struggle.”

This Information was accessed on The Cradock Four Website. For the full story please visit

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