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South Africa

new internationalist
issue 166 - December 1986

Funeral in Soweto

Today was the funeral of three youths who had been shot by the police last Saturday week The funeral was banned by the police.

Outside the church, as the coffin was being carried to the hearse, I saw a large police vehicle, known to the people as a 'Yellow Mellow'. I dashed back Into the church for a chasuble and stole so as to appear as formal as possible. In the two or three minutes I was away, shooting started. When I got back outside the police were firing rounds of tear gas at the mourners.

I got into my car and drove up to the police. Five or six policemen were in a line outside the vehicle firing at the people behind us. One of them had his gun pointing directly at the windscreen of my car. I stopped about 20 yards away.

I went up to the police, who were still firing at the mourners. I said to them (and it sounds incongruous as I write it) 'this is a funeral'. One of them said 'we know' and the firing continued. Then I saw that in the 'Yellow Mellow' they had several boys, who they said had tried to hijack a minibus. They refused to release them.

I waved the hearse along, as the police seemed to have ceased firing, We headed for the cemetery in the car, past a police blockade at the end of the road.

At the cemetery the prayers over the grave were short - we feared that the police might arrive. I told the people - and there must have been about 700 of them - about the boys who had been detained. The only way we could know who they were was for families to check on who was missing when they went home.

The police appeared and parked about 100 yards away. A message came over the loud-hailer. It was distorted and could only be heard by those at the back of the crowd. These began running for the buses.

I ran over to the police to find out what they had said and also to plead for time as it was obvious that they had given some kind of ultimatum. As I approached, a policeman picked up a gun and pointed it at my chest. I stopped a few feet away from him.

'We didn't hear your order. Can you tell us what it was?' 'No dancing or we shoot.' Nobody to my knowledge had been dancing - there is a regulation which forbids singing at funerals.

I appealed to them to give us time - that we had not heard the order, that it was distorted. The one who was pointing the gun at me put it away and picked up a longer-barrelled gun - presumably it had greater range. He moved to one side of me and put the gun to his shoulder. I pleaded with him and he totally ignored me, though there was a look of fury on his face. He took aim and fired at the mourners. I saw tear gas come up in a cloud.

I stood in front of him. He aimed his gun at me from a distance of less than a foot, then dodged to one side and fired again. At this point he gave an order in Afrikaans 'Shoot them, shoot them'. One of the others fired two rounds of tear gas.

Now I was the one doing the dancing, in chasuble and stole, leaping in front of first one and then the other, trying to prevent them from shooting at people. The two people with me wisely did not say anything during all this. They were black and they knew that by opening their mouths they would only incense the police. They pulled me to one side; afraid I was going to be shot.

We went back into the crowd, which was milling around the cemetery in panic. As we reached them a second 'Yellow Mellow' arrived and eight to ten policemen got out. These latest arrivals were armed with long-barrelled tear-gas guns, shotguns and sidearms. Around our buses there were many, mainly young, people. I appealed to them.

'They are just waiting to shoot. Don't give them that excuse. Show your respect for Michael (the one being buried) by your silence. You have great dignity in silence. Show those police that you have dignity and do not give them the excuse that they are waiting for.'

Gradually the hubbub quietened down, but there were still hundreds milling about and any mass rush for the buses in panic had to be avoided. It was panic the police were waiting for, so that they could open fire, using the flimsy excuse that they were in a riot situation and had to control it - never admitting that they themselves had caused it. Everyone climbed aboard the buses and a 'Yellow Mellow' led the procession out of the cemetery.

Back at the church I parked the car and went to the house of the bereaved for something to eat. Two old grannies came to me and thanked me profusely for what I had done. I had tears in my eyes as they did so. It had been a traumatic experience for all of us.

This is an excerpt from the diary of a white Catholic priest working in Soweto who wishes to remain anonymous.

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