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.

As in great cities everywhere, not all corpses are claimed by family members; the police and state mortuaries are often stacked to the ceiling with the bodies of unknown paupers and accident or murder victims whose next of kin cannot readily be traced. Even when corpses are claimed, however, poor families often find it hard to meet the cost of a coffin or of transporting the body to the cemetery of their choice. Nor do their difficulties end there, since state officials can volunteer their assistance to the bereaved in gruesome, unwanted, ways. Recently, residents of a former ‘homeland’ brought a coffin all the way from the Transkei to the Pretoria police mortuary only to find that it was too small for the body to fit in. The inspector on duty saw the problem from a different angle: it was the body rather than the coffin that was causing the problem. He started to cut off the arms from the shoulders of the body, and the legs from the hip. The startled kinsmen, it was reported, ‘bolted away from the mortuary’. ‘The inspector,’ the authorities hastened to assure the public, ‘is to be charged with the mutilation of a body.’

Experiences such as these help to drive the bereaved into the arms of the professionals. In an industry increasingly driven by supply-side considerations there is no shortage of undertakers of any class or colour. In June this year the 150-strong black National Funeral Undertakers’ Association met and, anxious to portray a more professional image, promptly renamed itself the South African Funeral Practitioners’ Association (Safpa). Predictably, Safpa’s first objective was to facilitate black economic empowerment – a goal in line with government policies and the national mood. Noting that the State Tender Board still favoured the white-owned firm of Avbob when it came to handing out contracts for the burial of paupers, a spokesman proclaimed: ‘It is painful to see that the Government is still empowering those who were empowered previously while ignoring those who were disadvantaged.’ The organisation also wanted to root out those ‘blacks who front for whites’ and appealed to the community ‘not to do business with them’. The National Treasurer of Safpa, however, had other concerns. ‘There are no regulations governing this business,’ he lamented. ‘If the situation is left unattended, it may result in chaos, with many undertakers chasing a few bodies.’ But with 18,000 murders a year, the equivalent of a Titanic-ful of corpses sailing away each month, in addition to what is in any case a high death rate, the danger of there being too few bodies may have been overstated.

Lizeka Mda, a journalist at the Mail & Guardian, reports that in Soweto as many as three hundred funerals can take place on a single day. Between mid-morning and mid-afternoon on Saturday, convoys of cortèges headed by anything from American stretch limousines to modest Japanese saloon cars make their way down the Potchefstroom Road en route for the Avalon or Dobsonville cemeteries only to find, on arrival, that there are half a dozen other funerals taking place at immediately adjacent burial plots. In these circumstances late arrivals often get lost, while the presence of choirs drawn from several different denominations along with prayers offered in different tongues can make it a Babel-like experience for families anxious to maintain some semblance of decorum in a bleak setting.

Decorum is not the priority of township gangsters when they bury their dead. The ironically named Gentlemen, or Amagintsa gangs, consist of heavily-armed youngsters between the ages of about eighteen and thirty. Their strongholds are working-class townships on the East and West Rand; they have made car-hijacking a speciality. On leaving the church after the funeral service, the Gentlemen, in regulation sunglasses, slide out their unlicensed police-issue handguns, rifles, shotguns and semi-automatic weapons and proceed to offer the departed comrade a ‘gun-salute’ which lasts all the way to the cemetery. On reaching the graveside, where open consumption of liquor in the presence of the minister is said to be commonplace, the members of the cortège perpetuate further outrages. Inappropriately clad young women hang from the open windows of luxury cars, clutching cans of beer, as their Amagintsa consorts race and spin stolen vehicles in a final tribute to the dead man. So frequent and disruptive have these events become in Gauteng that law-abiding folk have had to request a police presence at funerals. On several occasions this hasn’t proved to be much of a safeguard. City Press, which for several months mounted a campaign against Amagintsa excesses, reported on cases where the police did nothing to stop gangsters. In one instance at Evaton, they simply abandoned the terrain and went off in search of refreshment of their own at the local bottle store. At the insistence of the newspaper, the incident was investigated and the seven policemen concerned were eventually found guilty of misconduct after the authorities had mounted the usual ‘internal enquiry’.

At Tembisa on the East Rand members of the notorious Toaster Gang buried one of their number on a Sunday and then went on the rampage, killing one person, injuring six others and looting and damaging more than a hundred homes. Members of the community, beside themselves with rage, dug up the corpse, then – drawing on the murderous repertoire developed during the liberation struggle – ‘dragged it around the township before setting it alight’.

Unruly behaviour at burials cannot always be laid at the door of gangsters or policemen. At Tokoza, also on the East Rand, most of the family were present at a Friday-night vigil when a self-styled prophet put it to a group of the relatives that the deceased, Buti Choechoe, was not really dead and that he could be revived. The family split into two factions. Those of little faith questioned the credentials of the ‘prophet’ and distanced themselves from the ensuing events. According to a report in the Star, the believers allowed the prophet to embark on the revival procedure and, on filing past the body for the last time, noted that it first ‘yawned and winked at them’ and then, more alarmingly, ‘started turning into a goat’. This unexpected transfiguration shook even the believers who, resorting to thoroughly modern South African solutions, decided to shoot the goat-man and promptly emptied six rounds into the corpse. ‘The gunfire caused an uproar among a huddle of mourners attending the vigil.’ Only slightly reassured, the bewildered believers decided to take no further risks and tied the coffin to the top of a car, which they then drove to a nearby cemetery where they made preparations to burn the body. ‘But the corpse was ice cold’ and, according to the Star, it took ‘three trips to a nearby garage to get petrol to burn it’.

In a country which has seen the burning of hundreds of witches over the past half-decade, traditional beliefs continue to exercise a powerful hold over large numbers of poorly educated and increasingly impoverished peasants in the former homelands that lie north of Gauteng. Unscrupulous sangomas, or ‘witchdoctors’, are sometimes party to the murder of children, whose body parts are much prized as medicine or muti. But when a living victim cannot be found, a few anti-social witchdoctors are perfectly willing to engage the services of Messrs Burke and Hare. Last year, in Acornhoek, Northern Province, the police confirmed the widespread sale of human parts in the district. They arrested two men who admitted to having dug up the body of one Belicia Komane and removed the head before disposing of the tongue and lower jaw to fastidious customers. On further investigation, the legs and arms of the corpse were also found to be missing.

Pre-Enlightenment practices are perhaps to be expected in distant rural areas, but exhumations in more densely settled semi-urban areas – officially sanctioned or otherwise – sometimes produce equally dismaying results. Last year, Dennis Makhanya, a qualified but unemployed young black lawyer, disappeared while working as a taxi driver for his father. His body was eventually recovered and given a pauper’s burial in a Gauteng cemetery. After lengthy enquiries his father, Kenneth Makhanya, established the name of the cemetery in which his son had been buried and obtained the necessary permission to exhume the remains for a decent burial. However, according to City Press, the original undertakers ‘did not have a proper filing system’, and had great difficulty in locating the precise grave in which the son had been buried. The first two graves exhumed yielded the remains only of dogs. ‘It is not only heartbreaking to know your son was buried as a pauper,’ the distraught father told Dibuseng Kaibe, the City Press reporter, ‘but that he is buried amongst dogs is disheartening.’ The correct grave has yet to be located.

In the Shobashobane, in KwaZulu-Natal, on Christmas Day 1995, 18 people – mainly women and children – were killed within sight of the local police station when more than two thousand Inkatha Freedom Party supporters attacked an ANC outpost. The aftermath of the massacre was marked by intense wrangling between the two parties about where and how the bodies should be buried. In the sequel, noted by a research officer attached to the Helen Suzman Foundation, the bodies were tipped into ‘a huge trough of cement’. A nearby hilltop is now marked by a concrete tomb. Elsewhere in KwaZulu-Natal, there are reports of political parties burying their dead in concrete so as to prevent their rivals from digging up the corpses and tossing them onto adjacent roads – the highest expression of contempt.

Things do not necessarily unfold more smoothly when experienced administrators drawn from the political parties get involved. In June the Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture, Bridgitte Mabandla, and the Gauteng Minister of Education, Mary Metcalfe, were both much in evidence at the Rebecca Street Cemetery in Pretoria when the ANC sought to exhume the bodies of three founding members of the military wing of the movement, Umkhonto we Sizwe, so that their remains might be reinterred in Port Elizabeth. Matters got off to a bad start in a city famous for housing the state bureaucracy. ANC officials failed to produce the necessary court order, or to make certain that the proposed exhumation took place in the presence of the police. The result was a very public confrontation between Mrs Mabandla and cemetery officials. After the necessary permission was eventually obtained, ANC officials proceeded to the nearby Mamelodi cemetery in order to exhume the remains of three other former Umkhonto soldiers so that they, too, could be reburied. Graveyard attendants at the cemetery said they had looked on in ‘helpless horror’ as the families of the three dead people gathered bones from the wrong graves.’ It was left to the well-known ANC spokesman, Ronnie Mamoepa, to confirm that a mistake had indeed been made.

Even when a body has been safely committed to the grave there is no guarantee that members of the family will be able to locate the grave again, or to honour their dead in reasonably lasting fashion. Graveyards in South Africa, as elsewhere in the world, are attractive inner-city sanctums for those who are either on their way into society or on their way out – adolescent boys, drunks, vagrants. Rather unusually, however, in South Africa cemeteries are also the objects of attention of individual thieves and well-organised gangs. Here too, the patterns of criminal activity are related to the wealth of the community in which the graveyard is located. In Johannesburg thieves park their trucks on perimeter roads at the West Park Cemetery and use the cover of darkness to strip graves of bronze or marble effigies. ‘Everything metal or marble, including pocket-size angels, bronze tomb gates and marble statues that stand a few metres high has disappeared,’ one unhappy woman told the Star.

Graves belonging to members of the Catholic and Greek Orthodox communities appear to have been particularly badly affected and, two years ago, the Catholic Church demanded that Johannesburg’s Transitional Metropolitan Council make greater efforts to safeguard the cemetery. These came to little, however, and within months the Brixton Flying Squad arrested two thieves making off into the night with ‘a 60 kg bronze sculpture’ while the Superintendent at West Park continues to deal with an avalanche of complaints by members of the public relating to theft and vandalism. Even the metal plaque that was unveiled some months ago by Mandela in Braamfontein and fixed to the stone commemorating Enoch Sontonga, the composer of the much loved national anthem, ‘Nkosi Sikele’, has been stolen.

Further south, in black working-class communities such as Evaton and Sharpeville, where cemeteries often lack even the most basic perimeter fencing, gangs are undaunted by the weight of the commemorative objects that they remove. Some gangs have links to masons who own the polishing machines that can erase original inscriptions, and often they remove several tombstones during a single nocturnal excursion. Tombstones can cost as much as R7000 each (almost $1000 at current rates) and not all black families in southern Gauteng can afford them, so authorities try to make identification of the graves of the poor possible by providing each site with an appropriately numbered aluminium marker. But in Evaton, where aluminium fetches R5 per kg from scrap-metal dealers, thousands of such markers have been removed, sometimes within three hours of their having been installed. Even wooden crosses are taken off and sold as firewood. In West Park Cemetery, tons of brass and aluminium vases have disappeared. Joseph Freitas, a scrap-metal dealer, was arrested while trying to sell 50 kg of brass and aluminium crudely chipped from gravestones in West Park. Many of the graves vandalised, the Star noted, were those of children who died in the 1986 Westdene disaster, when a municipal bus taking them home from school plunged into Westdene Dam. In Evaton not even the cups, dishes and bowls placed on graves for the symbolic use of the shades escape the attention of thieves determined to remove any item of value, no matter how small.

Yet it is the physical space that disused cemeteries and grave sites occupy in urban areas that is now most vulnerable to invasion by the rural poor, who flow into formerly ‘whites only’ cities at unprecedented rates. At De Deur, south of Johannesburg, the strangely named Sky Estate Agency sold building sites to unsuspecting buyers, who only later discovered that there were several graves on the plots where they planned to build homes. The situation in Port Elizabeth is particularly acute. For at least twenty years, but more especially so since the early Nineties, graveyards in New Brighton, Kwazakhele, Veeplaas and Zwide townships have been encroached on by the steadily advancing shacks of ‘squatters’. In New Brighton over two hundred shacks, some incorporating tombstones, have been set up right on top of grave sites. Former township residents complain bitterly that drinking, sex and gambling all take place on tombstones erected in honour of some of the former community’s most noted civic leaders. Those who can afford to do so exhume the remains of their heroes and re-bury them elsewhere. Others are less fortunate.

Most people are, of course, unable to do anything about the distressing and undignified developments that increasingly surround death, funerals and burial sites in the new South Africa. The poorest have taken to fencing off the graves of family members with inferior quality burglar-proofing, while the better-off are opting to bury their dead in ‘private cemeteries’ patrolled by private security companies. Thus the resting places of the dead come to mirror the haunted homes of the living. Revolutionary moments are marked by curious, unexpected symmetries.