Body Stolen, Buried in Haste in S. Africa

Times Staff Writer

The body of the exiled king of South Africa’s 5 million Xhosas was stolen by government officials and hurriedly buried here Sunday to prevent his funeral from becoming a mass anti-apartheid rally.

Officials of the Xhosa tribal homeland of Transkei, defying court orders barring the interment, seized the body of Chief Sabata Dalindyebo from a mortuary, brought it here to the royal seat of the Tembu clan and buried it with the protection of more than 500 armed soldiers and policemen.

Kaiser Matanzima, a cousin of Sabata, who was installed as paramount chief in his place by South Africa and became the Transkei president when it was given nominal independence 10 years ago, personally supervised the burial--as if to dramatize his final victory over the man who had called him “a usurper, scoundrel and traitor.”


Matanzima, who was accompanied by his brother, George Matanzima, the Transkei prime minister, said a few words of praise for Sabata, as Xhosa tradition requires, before ordering the mahogany casket lowered into the ground.

Sabata’s closest relatives, including Winnie Mandela, wife of imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, the king’s uncle, learned later in Umtata, Transkei’s capital, of the burial.

“What crime is more despicable than stealing a man’s body from his grieving family?” asked Buyelekhaye Dalindyebo, the chief’s 21-year-old son and heir. “And when a chief . . . is buried like a pauper, then it is a crime against the whole nation, not just against his family.”

Tens of thousands of Xhosas were prepared to come to Transkei in convoys of buses from around the country to bury Sabata, not just as traditional Xhosa leader but as a senior member of the guerrilla African National Congress and a staunch opponent of South Africa’s apartheid system.

Court Order Sought

The family is preparing to seek a court order to disinter the body so that it can be reburied and to ask that Matanzima and the government be held in contempt of court for defying an injunction issued early Sunday, barring any funeral until the Transkei supreme court can hear the family’s plea to allow it to bury Sabata in its own way.

The chief, who was 57, died in exile earlier this month in Lusaka, Zambia, headquarters of the African National Congress, where he had settled after fleeing South Africa six years ago. Through his resistance to apartheid and his backing of the African National Congress, Sabata had become “comrade king” to his supporters.


“If he had not left Transkei, he would have died in prison,” Winnie Mandela said Sunday.

By Xhosa custom, Nelson Mandela, as the senior member of the Tembu clan, should have made the funeral arrangements, but he entrusted them to Kaiser Matanzima, the next senior family member, after Matanzima promised Mandela’s wife that Sabata would be buried as a “people’s king.”

“Matanzima reneged and betrayed his people yet again,” Winnie Mandela said, recalling her discussions last week with the Transkei leader, who stepped down as president in February but who remains the political power here.

Sabata’s casket--loaded onto a government pickup truck in Umtata--was placed in a thatched hut here to comply with Xhosa custom that the body be brought from the dead person’s home. Then, as police-cleared mourners gathered in a light drizzle, a brief ceremony was held beneath a jacaranda tree.

A few prayers were said, some hymns sung, and the Matanzima brothers praised Sabata as a “great son of the Transkei,” ignoring his three decades of opposition.