During the Soweto uprising of 1976, Robert, an 18-year old student, joined the struggle and left South Africa for exile. Left behind were his six siblings and his parents. Six years later, his parents heard a knock at the door. But standing in the doorway was not Robert. In the place where Robert should have stood was Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki informed Robert’s family that like 42 others, Robert’s life had been lost in the Maseru Massacre in Lesotho.
Robert’s parents were given a death certificate. But more important than his death certificate was Robert’s body. The government promised Robert’s family that his body was somewhere in Maseru, and that all the travel expenses to retrieve his body would be paid. The family would soon find that this was nothing but an empty promise. Robert’s family travelled to Maseru to look for him, but had to pay for their own transportation and accommodation. Unfortunately, the money they had scraped together to get to Maseru would turn out to be a waste. Upon arriving in Maseru, no one could tell Robert’s family where his body was. Another empty promise.
After an unsuccessful attempt at putting their son and brother to rest, Robert’s family did not give up. They continued to put pressure on the government to tell them where Robert was buried. In response, they were told that if they wanted to know where Robert’s body was, if they wanted to have him exhumed, they would have to pay. This response remains disturbing. A family who should have received reparations from the government for their loss was instead told that they should be the ones to pay. Robert’s family simply did not have the money to pay for his exhumation. By the time his family caught wind that they could report his disappearance to the TRC, they were told it was too late. The TRC had closed and Robert’s family was left without reparation, and without justice.
Robert had disappeared. In other attempts to search for him, his family was told many different stories. From Maseru, to Ladybrand, to an unmarked grave filled with 3 other bodies, the story kept changing. In 1996, both of Robert’s parents passed away. They died, still riddled with the emotional trauma of searching for Robert. They died never knowing what had happened to their son. When his parents died, Robert’s niece assured them that she would never stop looking.
His niece has been looking for his body ever since, but has been met with resistance again and again. When she tried to locate him, she was told that no one knew where he was buried because he had used a false name when he was in exile. She finds this hard to believe, given that when Thabo Mbeki came to their home to tell them Robert had died, the government knew exactly who Robert was. If he was using a false name that made him unidentifiable, why did they know his name in 1982? How did they know to inform his family of his death? Recently, Robert’s younger sister and aunt were told that they should just give up, let it go, and accept that he was buried somewhere else.
It affects Robert’s aunt and sister every single day that they live without knowing what happened to him, and without giving him a proper burial. They cannot accept the notion that they should simply let it go. It pains them to know that Robert’s parents died without finding him and without putting him to rest. Each year a memorial ceremony is held to honour those who died in the Maseru Massacre. Robert’s aunt and sister refuse to go. They find it too painful to surround themselves with so many people who had their family member’s bodies returned. They cannot understand why other parents got their children’s bodies back, while Robert’s parents had to die still searching for their son. When asked what they wish to see happen, his sister replied, “We aren’t asking for anything. We don’t want money. We just want his body back.”