NPA’s Missing Person task team exhumes remains of ANC activist buried as a pauper 56 years ago

A forensic expert removing water from the grave where James Booi was buried in 1966.

A forensic expert removing water from the grave where James Booi was buried in 1966. Ntwaagae Seleka

  • The remains of ANC activist have been found after he was buried as a pauper for 56 years
  • James Booi died at Groenpunt Prison, to which he was transferred from the then Robben Island Prison.
  • He died in 1966 before he could complete his two-year sentence.

Water from the ANC political activist’s grave could not deter a forensic expert team from recovering his remains on Friday.

Experts from the National Prosecuting Authority’s Missing Persons Task Team (MPTT) spent some time using buckets to remove water from the grave where James Booi was buried.

The exhumed remains were found hidden in the mud and removed from his grave.

Born in 1904, Booi was buried at Zamdela Cemetery in Sasolburg by Groenpunt Prison following his death in jail in 1966 at the age of 62.

Booi had been sentenced to two years by the government for his involvement in the fight against apartheid.

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His family spent 56 years looking for him.

Their painful journey started at Robben Island and later led them to Zamdela, where he was buried as a pauper by his captors at the time.

He was arrested in 1961 at his home in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, now known as Gqeberha. Booi was last seen alive when he was forcefully taken away from his home by the apartheid police.

James Booi

The remains of James Booi exhumed from the grave where he was buried as a pauper.

He was only dressed in his pyjama pants at the time. He was later sent to Robben Island, where he served half his two-year sentence.

Due to his age and torture at the Robben Island Prison, Booi became ill and was transferred to Groenpunt to complete his remaining sentence.

He died a few months after he arrived at Groenpunt Prison.

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On Friday, his remains which had been earlier positively identified, were dug out together with some portions of the remnants of his coffin.


They were later placed in a white bag before the family was called to see what had been salvaged.

His wooden coffin was destroyed except for steel handles. Due to the cemetery being on a wetland, water damaged the coffin. Booi’s bones were dark in colour.

His family, who had travelled from the Eastern Cape, sat under a tent watching as his remains were meticulously removed from the grave.

It took officials two years to positively identify his grave.

Representing the MPTT, Madeleine Fullar said their two years of patient investigation had yielded results.

“Our mandate is to trace the fate and whereabouts of people who disappeared in political circumstances between 1960 and 1994. To date, we have recovered at least the remains of 170 people inside the country,” said Fullard.

The MPTT collaborated with the Robben Island Museum, Groenpunt Prison and Mestimaholo Municipality to trace Booi’s remains.

Fullard said:

We are thrilled we have come to the point that we have recovered his remains.

The emotional Metsimaholo Mayor Jeff Zwane called for the recovery of other missing activists’ remains.

“There are many people who fought apartheid whose remains have not been found. I am happy we didn’t struggle to find his grave due to our properly stored records. If other activists are buried in our cemeteries, we will collaborate with the MPTT to find them.

“Two weeks ago, I was approached by the MPTT, and I decided to abandon my tasks and focus on assisting the Booi family in finding closure. The family now has the opportunity to offer his remains a decent burial.

“The apartheid government was brutal. It denied his family an opportunity to bury him in 1966. By now, the family should have mourned and accepted his death,” Zwane said.