Neighbors remembered the rows of men laboring on the Glenroy sugarcane farm, wearing sacks that had been converted into clothing. They were, locals recalled, prisoners who had been brought to the farm to work in the fields that belonged to a shrewd and well-known local farmer.
That was decades ago, during apartheid in South Africa. Those stories had become something like local lore — until this week, when authorities announced that nearly 100 long-dead bodies had been discovered on the land. Officials believe that the dead are some of those same prisoners who were brought to the farm to work during the 1960s and 1970s.
The details are piecemeal, but neighbors told local media that prisoners were known to have died there — perhaps from old age, illness, exhaustion, or worse, after they had been beaten or shot, according to the Mercury, a South African newspaper.
The mass grave “is huge,” said Thabane Dube, mayor of the town of Vulamehlo, according to the Herald. “Several hundred square meters, filled with trees and bushes. You can see the mounds. Lots of them.”
Vulamehlo is in the province KwaZulu-Natal, near Durban in eastern South Africa.
It is a gruesome discovery, and no matter how the dead found their way into those graves, the unmarked mounds indicate that the burials were unorthodox, according to private forensic investigator David Klatzow, who has been consulted on the case.
“This is very suspicious,” Klatzow said. “There has to be a paper trail. There have to be records, as 100 people simply don’t drop off the planet without a trace.”
The discovery of the bodies was attributed to another mysterious event: The visions of a local shaman, or sangoma.
“A sangoma approached the provincial government after spirits began haunting him about the grave,” Msizi Zulu, the town’s municipal manager, told the Times, a South African newspaper. “A mass grave of some sorts has been identified.”
The sangoma, a traditional healer who is believed to have divining powers, was being interviewed for an oral history project, according to the Mercury. But the shaman revealed not only the past, but the present: There were buried bodies appearing in visions.
“Growing up, we knew there were prisoners working there,” an elderly woman who worked seasonally on the farm told the Mercury. “They served their sentences there — and when it was over, they would be dealt with and buried there.”
“We would hear that people were slaughtered on that farm and sometimes prisoners would escape and run through our area in their escape,” added local chief Mjokwana Mqadi, according to the Daily News of South Africa.
Some 30 years ago, the old Glenroy Farm was sold to a sugarcane company, Illovo Sugar, which confirmed that the previous owner housed a prison building on the property.
The company was “informed that a derelict building, previously hidden from sight by thick and overgrown vegetation on an uncultivated section of the farm, was in fact a prison building many years ago,” said Illovo’s communications director, Chris Fitzgerald. He added that the company has never used prison labor since acquiring the farm.
The remains will have to be carefully exhumed and rigorously analyzed to find out how these people died — or worse, if they were killed, said Klatzow, the forensic investigator.
Officials are eager to close the community’s disconcerting chapter, said local chief Mqadi.
“The community is in shock that they have been living with all these restless spirits for all these years,” Mqadi told the Daily News. “We would like to see the bones being returned to their families so that their spirits will rest.”