South Africa’s communal spirit will survive coronavirus

In South Africa, funerals are pillars of black solidarity and when this pandemic passes, they will be again.

People sing and dance as they leave the memorial service for former President Nelson Mandela in his birth village in Mvezo, South Africa in 2013 [File: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]
People sing and dance as they leave the memorial service for former President Nelson Mandela in his birth village in Mvezo, South Africa in 2013 [File: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]

I am glad that when my 81-year-old father, Jasper Bhekumuzi Ngidi, died in September 2018, we were able to bury him as he would have wanted.

That, of course, was before coronavirus, which has made the sacred act of saying farewell to a loved one potentially deadly and increasingly less communal.

In a bid to combat a rapid spread of the pandemic in South Africa, and in line with a nationwide lockdown, the government has introduced restrictions on funerals. A maximum of 50 people can attend, and only those closest to the deceased may travel for the burial (including across provinces). 

Long before my fit, healthy, agile father died after a short illness, I had asked him where he would like to be buried. In the family garden, near the banana plants, he told me. And that is where he now rests, on a hill overlooking the Indian Ocean.

A deacon at the time of his death, he came from a long line of Christian converts who had been recruited to spread Catholicism in parts of modern KwaZulu-Natal by the Austrian monk, Abbot Franz Pfanner, the founder of Mariannhill in Durban whose missionary work included building churches in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

As a retired teacher and choirmaster, we had no illusions that we could restrict the number of attendees at his funeral. In fact, in the black community, funerals are often measured by the number of mourners and, more recently, by the quality of the food and social profile of the guests.

As is the case with most South African funerals today, my father’s funeral rites were a blend of Christian and African customary practices rooted in ancient belief systems relating to life and death.

We observed the African rituals of burning impepho wild grass incense and reciting our family clan names, while we also held a funeral mass in line with Catholic tradition.

The activities began a day before the funeral, when my uncle, my elder brother and I, fetched my father’s spirit at the hospital where he had died, using a buffalo-thorn tree branch. We then went to the mortuary to collect his body, avoiding talking to strangers until we reached home.

Throughout the journey, my uncle talked to my father, first announcing our arrival, then the places we passed. Central to this practice, is the idea that, unless the spirit of a departed person is brought home, it will wander in search of its home, and may be a cause of spiritual dissonance in the family.

Fetching the spirit of the dead is a powerful experience; one that can help you become more accepting of death.

Once we had brought the body home to be received by the principal mourner – in this case, my mother – we held a wake that lasted until the early hours of the morning for family members, friends and fellow congregants to “open their chests” – to speak about my father and offer moral support to the family.

Although all of my siblings and I are fully-grown adults, decisions about the funeral were not made only by us and our mother. Elders in the extended family also have a say – partaking in the rituals, digging the grave and supervising the slaughter of the animals, mainly a cow and two goats.

Without being asked, community members – particularly women – divide up chores like fetching firewood, preparing traditional malt beer (which can take three to four days), cooking and baking. Men dig the grave overnight using manual tools and torches. The digging can take anything from five to 10 hours, depending on the terrain. The practice is not to dig the grave earlier as the gravesite is sacred, and must be protected before and after the burial.

As the digging goes on, servings of home-brewed beer and braaied (grilled) meat help ease the fatigue and the deceased is remembered in banter, songs and raucous laughter. Some men even smoke dagga and pee in the open with glee – the reprimands are measured, and kind. No one is paid a cent, people pull together with a great sense of honour, as a gesture of shared humanity, ubuntu, and in turn earn communal respect for themselves.

No family, irrespective of social standing or class, is considered unworthy of this communal support. The idea is that everyone – the deceased and the bereaved – must be treated with dignity.

In South Africa, the sanctity of burying your deceased with dignity was highlighted in some of the most moving testimonies at the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in 1996. Notrose Nobomvu Konile, whose liberation activist son Zabonke John Konile (together with six other young men, known as Cape Town’s Gugulethu Seven) was assassinated by apartheid agents in 1986. She told the Commission that, after accepting her son’s death, what had left her most distraught was the police’s refusal to let her bury him. 

Funerals are always a delicate subject for a government to get involved in. And South Africa’s recent history of gross human rights violations during Apartheid means the government must approach it with a high degree of sensitivity. To do so, is in no way indicative of a casual attitude to the gravity of the pandemic we are facing, but rather an attempt to respect fundamental human rights and key cultural pillars of black solidarity. It is a balancing act between protecting people and respecting the traditions they consider sacred.

But coronavirus has shaken many facets of life – and death.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government continues to stress the gravity of the pandemic to all citizens, including ill-disciplined senior government colleagues. 

Despite concerns that the effect of the coronavirus pandemic is yet to be felt in South Africa, the country’s communal spirit will not be broken, even if its funerals must change for now. Ubuntu, a comforting communal spirit will stand this nation in good stead, and when the COVID-19 storm is over, it will continue to be the glue holding communities together; a stubborn song celebrating the endurance of the human spirit.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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