Umtata's extraordinary day of death

The Star, South Africa/June 25, 2003
By Jonathan Ancer

Piles of sand, discarded surgical masks and rumours were all that was left as dusk descended over the church compound where the bodies of eight people had been exhumed.

Hours after police had uncovered the bodies on Tuesday night, residents of the Mandela Park informal settlement in Umtata huddled in groups to talk about the day's extraordinary developments.

According to Amon Sihiya, 42, about 80 members of the Ibandla Lika Krestu church had been living in the compound since 1999. "They didn't interfere with the community, and we didn't interfere with them. We were suspicious of them, and many people accused them of being a cult."

'They prayed and sang and read the Bible all day'

Sihiya watched as the body of a 10-year-old girl was removed from a shallow grave buried under a vegetable patch in the compound.

"The girl's mother cried and cried," he added.

Another resident, who refused to be named, said she had once considered joining the church but changed her mind after hearing she would have to live in the compound.

"They prayed and sang and read the Bible all day. The woman who ran the church did not believe in doctors.

"She claimed she had healing powers and people from all over would join the church to be healed.

'They will find more bodies'

"Some residents are saying she killed the people and buried them. I don't know. I just know that the residents are angry."

An old woman walked past the house, saying she would enter the compound only if she had a big dog. "They will find more bodies," she warned.

Sapa reported that Tuesday's exhumation took almost six hours and attracted about a thousand onlookers.

Superintendent Nondumiso Jafta said the exhumation followed allegations by the mother of a woman staying at the compound that her daughter had died and been buried without her being notified of the child's death.

Twelve church elders were arrested on Thursday and charged with concealing the deaths and defeating the ends of justice. They have since been granted bail of R300 each and are due back in the Umtata magistrate's court on Friday.

The chief of the area, Jonas Ndzambule, said the two properties where the churches were situated would be dug up by bulldozers to establish whether there were more bodies.

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