issue 159 - May 1986
No more mourning
Funerals in South Africa are no longer sombre occasions. They've become
celebrations of political resistance - and are radicalizing even conservative
black people. Mothobi Mutloatse describes how African blood has come to the boil.
'We reject the principle of having to seek permission from the police to bury our dead.' Dr Nthato Motlana..
FUNERALS in black South Africa are not what they used to be - thanks to the repressive actions of the white South African authorities. In fact, the Pretoria regime has succeeded where most organizations have failed - in stirring, urging, inspiring and agitating even the most apolitical and indifferent black South African into standing up and being counted.
The so-called traditional funeral, dominated by sombre hymns with mourners a-wailing and a-fainting, is virtually a thing of the past. Replaced by clenched fists, freedom song-chanting, foot-stamping and power-packed poetry recitals striking a sensitive nerve in the African soul.
'Tsoha, Tsoha. 0 robaletseng... Bual Bua! Ke madi a hao. (For the uninitiated, these are exhortations in the Sesotho language usually uttered at funerals of resistance victims, meaning 'rise up, rise up. Why sleepest thou? speak out! Speak out! tis your blood.'
Yes, the African blood is boiling.
This dramatic transformation of funerals in the black ghetto emerged subtly in the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto students' uprising, when unarmed kids were massacred for resisting. For demonstrating peacefully. Demonstrating against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.
One of the first politicized funeral services was held in a church in Meadowlands, Soweto, following the mysterious death of a detainee whom the authorities claimed had committed suicide.
From early morning, elderly mourners began trickling in. The former schoolmates of the deceased were nowhere to be seen. Until an hour later when the first hymn was about to be sung. Then boom. A shrill voice shrieked from the back - apparently a girl's voice - 'Maatla... ke a mang?' (Whose power is it?).
'Ke a rona!' (It is ours!), the student-world chanted, forcing the elder world to shift uneasily in its seats.
'Amandla!' (Power!). Another young voice rang out.
'Awethu!' (To the people!), retorted his schoolmates.
My mother could never carry me
My mother could never wean me
My mother could never embrace me
My mother is
But, defrocked of dignity
These days she dresses in the fatigues of those
Now my mother is dressed to kill
Chris van Wyk
Then another excited youngster in a frenzied voice, jumping up and about as if someone had set him ablaze, asked: 'Nivabasaba na?' (Are you afraid of them?).
The reply came loud and clear: 'Hai! Asibasabi, siyabafunaaaaaaa!' (No, we're not - in fact we want them!).
That definitely buried hymns for the rest of the service. However, the climax was yet to come. Not from the 'student world', but rather, from an unexpected quarter: the priest who presided over the funeral service.
The deceased had not died a natural death. Nor had he been in an accident. He had died in police custody, allegedly committing suicide - an explanation which was totally unconvincing to both the schoolboy's family and the wider community. Because of these disturbing circumstances, said the priest, he could not perform the last rites. To do so would have meant condoning the boy's mysterious death.
Politicised funerals took a break for several years, to come back with a bang last year when violent repression also returned from leave.
Tsoha, Tsoha. 0 robaletseng. Bua! Bua! ke madi a hao. The Bua! Bua! chant was coined by a poet. And is now chanted hymn-like at funerals for comrades, as all young fallen fighters are referred to affectionately by their peers.
And the more the authorities clamp down on funerals, the more radicalizing an influence they become. The State decrees who shall and who shan't attend, and when and why victim so-and-so shall not be buried at weekends but during the week; it bans relatives from far afield from paying their last respects; it sends police and soldiers to sjambok (club) or fire teargas at mourners; it interferes with revered traditions like washing hands on returning from the cemetery. All of this has propelled even conservative black people into protest.
Take the ultra-conservative Zion Christian Church (ZCC), which last year shocked the black world by inviting President Botha to address them at their annual Easter pilgrimage - an event the regime propagandized as proof to the world that Botha was acceptable to 'millions of black Christians'. Many ZCC members had their first whiff of tear gas at the funeral service of a church member allegedly kicked to death by police.
A graphic photograph of this encounter with reality was captured by The Sowetan newspaper. It showed dazed ZCC men, in full regalia, battling with teargas fumes, frantically covering their mouths and noses with handkerchiefs. So angered were they that immediately afterwards they marched to the police to lodge a complaint.
In The Sowetan report, a spokesman for the deceased was quoted as saying: 'They (police) killed our son. Now they refuse us the right to bury him in dignity. Our bishop must give us the right to challenge these police'.
It is incidents like these which are radicalizing ordinary folk. Now the sound heard frequently at funerals is that of the AK-47 Qasha! qasha! Ratatata! With young mourners dressed to kill, to use a pun, carrying imitation AK-47 guns.
And nobody is weeping. Nobody is fainting any more. Coffins are carried shoulder-high for kilometres by athletic pallbearers, chanting and stamping their feet at the same time. Some women are even ululating. Death is no longer unusual in the national liberation struggle. It is inevitable. For some people death is a price freedom fighters will pay rather than live on as slaves.
As Bishop Tutu has observed: 'These children scare me. They have an incredible recklessness. They all think they are going to die. They do not have a death wish, but think that if this is the way they are going to get freedom, so be it'.
So we should expect more freedom songs, clenched fists, sjamboks, stones, teargas and bullets at the funeral services of comrades as the heat intensifies. Funerals will continue to be more politicized - to act as a platform on which people without a vote can express themselves politically. Bans or no bans.
Mothobi Mutloatse is a poet and founding editor at Skotaville Press, a radical black publishing house in Johannesburg.