Dead but Not Quite Buried

Charles van Onselen writes about the desecration industry in South Africa

In the winter of 1913, South Africa’s most famous black journalist, Solomon T. Plaatje, travelled through the southwestern Transvaal to observe and report on the plight of black families who had been thrown off white farms. These evictions were prompted by the passage of the notorious Natives’ Land Act, the legislation which, like the Enclosure Acts, formed the bedrock on which the economic edifice of segregationist, and later apartheid, South Africa was constructed. Thousands of fleeing African tenant farmers had nowhere to turn. Late one afternoon, on a road just south of the Vaal River, Plaatje (a founding member of the South African Natives National Congress, the forerunner of the ANC) found the Kgobadi family sheltering from a blizzard. Their child had died during the exodus. The Kgobadis, he wrote,

decided to dig a grave under the cover of darkness that night, when no one was looking, and in that crude manner the dead child was interred – and interred amid fear and trembling, as well as the throbs of torturing anguish, in a stolen grave, lest the proprietor of the spot, or any of his servants, should surprise them in the act. Even criminals dropping straight from the gallows have an undisputed claim to six feet of ground on which to rest their criminal remains, but under the cruel operation of the Natives’ Land Act little children, whose only crime is that God did not make them white, are sometimes denied that right in their ancestral home.

Today, in this troubled society-in-the-making, babies are born, children grow up and go to school, young people find some way or other of making a living, eventually get married and, when their life’s work is done, they die and are buried and honoured in the manner sanctioned by custom and tradition. The rites of passage that punctuate these movements and the importance we attach to them are often the markers of civilised society. They are part of what distinguishes us from the animal kingdom and, for this reason, the cluster of practices that surround life and death are worthy of close and special scrutiny.

South Africans, but perhaps more especially black South Africans, are second to none in the significance they attach to death and burial, and in the respect they show for the sites where their forebears are interred. All-night prayer vigils and church services buoyed up by choral singing contribute to the respect and passion that attend personal loss. The unveiling of a tombstone is, in itself, an important event in the lives of most African families. Cemeteries and graves, especially those situated among the poorest rural communities, where tradition and modernity have reached an intriguing accommodation, are as well-tended as any, while in many urban areas, the graves of heroes of the South African liberation struggle occupy positions of great symbolic importance. But there are signs in many places, and particularly in the overcrowded, impoverished working-class townships of Gauteng, that some fundamental attitudes, beliefs and values surrounding death and burial have begun to fray.

Before 1990, the whites-only Johannesburg municipality was responsible for the administration and upkeep of a mere five cemeteries. Today no fewer than 27 cemeteries fall within the jurisdiction of the newly elected democratic Greater Johannesburg administration. The advent of this new unit of local government has not brought with it guarantees of a classless or colourless death structure. Indeed, cemeteries are strictly graded on a four-point scale, ranging from the ‘A’ accorded to the Braamfontein, Brixton and West Park Cemeteries, which meet the needs of the predominantly affluent white northern suburbs of the city, to ‘D’ – the status for cemeteries that service African townships such as Alexandra and Soweto, to the north and south of the city. Cemeteries can, however, move up – and presumably down – the league table. Alexandra, which once had the unfortunate distinction of occupying the only ‘E’ slot ever allocated by the municipality, was recently upgraded to ‘D’ when it was provided with an administration office, basic ablution facilities, roads and a perimeter fence.

There are some, but not many restrictions placed on where the bereaved may bury their dead, although not everything has changed since the days of the old South Africa. Burial plots in ‘D’-grade cemeteries, such as those in Soweto, will cost black working-class families the equivalent of a week’s wages at 110 Rands or 18 dollars each. Out in Ennerdale, people of mixed race, who enjoy a slightly more elevated position in the country’s racial and employment pecking order, will have to fork out R220 per plot. Muslims in nearby Lenasia have access to a ‘B’-grade cemetery (R440 per plot) while sites in relatively upmarket cemeteries like Braamfontein and West Park come at R770 a time.

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