Mandla and Siyanda’s partnership was founded on the shared premise that they were simply doing God’s work, profitably. They were now the most established and acclaimed Catholic funeral directors in Soweto. And with Zulus making up the majority of Soweto’s population, and Catholics making up the majority of the Zulu population, it was clear that God was, at the very least, a silent investor in Mandla and Siyanda’s thriving business. Not to mention how lucrative of an investment death could be in the largest ghetto in the nation with the mortality rates of a chicken farm. Their flourishing model could be summarized in a single word: affordability. Black lives needed to die cheaply, and no one could beat Mandla and Siyanda’s funeral prices. And yet, if you ever had the forlorn privilege of being in the audience of one of their services, you would know that there was far more to it than that. Mandla’s most eloquent oratory and musical prowess combined with Siyanda’s charm, organizational skills and his ability to disarm even the most explosive souls with his smile, made for a spellbinding concoction. Together they had seamlessly incubated an endless array of angel eggs for the netherworld. And they made sure that they all received a farewell ceremony fit for an emperor with the sombreness of each occasion drowned in the riotous upliftment of song.
Mandla would lead the hymn; his gruff cry roaring its first word in lacerated glory and his silver-ringed hands astride galloping chords on a keyboard which seemed to float just above his knees and then the choir would join him from the back of the cramped auditorium, the thick flutter of their vibrato like the last blinks of an extinguished sun. The choir would be followed by the bass guitarist’s twang, grumbling and hurried into pause by the whispers of glittery cymbals hovering over the thunderous cough of drums banging like the baritone gossip of grandfathers. Through the proceedings, grieving mothers would dance as they fall to their feet beseeching the Lord to not let them outlive all of their children and fathers would clap in an avalanche of antiquated anger. Old sores noisily heal in the musty open hall, the sour-sweet static electricity of ancestry being formed. These last rites provided a mirthful screaming entrance into eternity for those souls who have borne lives of quiet suffering here on earth. These services posthumously gifted them with something the world stole from them ages before they were even born. In them they received acknowledgment and the validation of synchronized praise as well as the remorseful outpours and make-believe reconciliations which we only tend to bestow upon our most beloved occupants of coffins.
It was Friday morning when Siyanda discovered the first administrative mistake he had made since the beginning of his and Mandla’s business. It was a mix-up in the dates, they were double-booked. Two funerals on the same day, at the same time. Both the deceased were too prominent to try to cancel on their families, though the forms of prominence they each held in the community were somewhat contradictory and thus the attendants to their pending funerals couldn’t be more incompatible with each other.
The one funeral was for Ma-Zwane, a seventy-eight-year-old matriarch of the Catholic Church who died after an arduous battle with Alzheimer’s and who acted as a stern mentor for Siya and Mandla since they were both alter boys. She despotically governed over all confirmed souls in Zondi with a terse poison-tipped tongue and played the self-appointed role of the community’s ethical referee for decades until she was deflated back into scrambled and bashful stages of girlhood in her final years.
The other was for a fifty-two-year-old notorious gangster and taxi kingpin known to all as Bra’ Gama who died of a bullet wound from a presently already avenged enemy (the skin of his buttocks flayed and flung over his mother’s washing line). The cosmic irony of lives so polarized being conjoined in their departure was not lost on Siyanda who couldn’t help but see his error as a portent of terrible things to come.
Although they were so obviously juxtaposed, there were still glaring similarities between the queen of the Catholics and the king of the gangsters. Both cadavers still commanded the reverence and respect of the township. Both shielded its hungriest hearts with a strong, domineering wisdom. Both came across as harsh and unforgiving but consistently protected those they loved with the only weapon they could ever deftly wield: Fear. And as a result, both were paranoid puppeteers who kept their flocks tethered to perpetual vendettas and petty symbolist wars, the rationales of which not even they themselves could decipher in the end.
Most of all, both the deaths of Ma-Zwane and Bra-Gama left the world lonelier than it was before they entered it, and also richer with the memory of their tyrannical caresses, the thorny nest of their presences, now disappeared. In their own, similar yet distant ways, both paragons knighted the dusty footed wandering youths of Pimville and Zondi with a higher purpose by moulding them into soldiers cast in their own images; into shadows of a damaging god, reared with a cold, torturous nurture conducive to the fledglings of a treacherous universe like Soweto. Everyone witnessed the metamorphosis of these urchins into cleanly presented mercenaries and members of the clergy. All could see the beauty whether or not they approved of the methodology of the cocoons which produced it.
Siya ruminated over these parallels before he snapped out of it and back into an abject state of panic. He figured he would notify both families of the overlap whilst withholding the identity of each to the other. In the meantime he sought out Mandla who was in the hall rehearsing with the band and a handful of its most sycophantic choir members. He waited for the bridge of the hymn ‘Akahlula iLutho uJesu’ (Nothing can conquer God) to enter and called him out of the hall as calmly as he could under the circumstances — Brother Mandla, a word? — After which Mandla glanced at him, slightly puzzled then instructed the ensemble to take it from the top without him.
Mandla followed Siya’s slight figure outside the hall into the warm, dark vestibule. When Siya told him of the crisis, he smiled. He saw it as more of a challenge than a tragedy, a chance to glue two rival realities together with music and prayer, the unifying conclusion of human loss, polishing the body of our stories into sculptures, monuments scrubbed clean of their misconduct. What was Siya freaking out about? Why should he even warn the families? It will only give them a reason to evade the mending. This occasion was predestined by a mightier force than them. After all, even typos can be biblical sometimes, Mandla believed and said in less poetic words to Siya. Mandla’s optimism managed to tranquilize the beast of anxiety running rampant in Siya’s mind which was, by then, a neatly filed cabinet of nightmares disguised as premonitions. Everything could go wrong tomorrow but there was a chance it could all go miraculously well. It was in the hands of a gambling god now.
Meanwhile spangled on various sides of the country, family members who had grown into phantoms to each other since the last funeral were boarding overloaded buses and trains, stuffy cars and tardily booked economy class flights, embarking on arduous journeys to lay to rest the woman who raised them all in a four roomed fortress in Zondi that always smelled of soap and burnt oats in the mornings.
Alcoholic prodigal sons who had borrowed money from their well-to-do sisters to come and who knew it was their duty to compensate for their poverty and shabby manifestations with manual labour, looked forward to being rewarded for their efforts with free liquor after the burial. Those sisters now slaved in the busy cage of their childhood kitchen making maize meal and steamed bread, soaking beans and grating beetroot, carrots and cabbage in cavernous zinc basins, their bodies orchestrated in talkative order, constructing a feast to feed a street of Ma-Zwane’s hungriest mourners.
A frightened bull that had spent most of its Friday tied to the fence outside was finally slaughtered when the men arrived. It sung to the stars as the knife pierced its throat, held by its hooves it was peeled into a skinless trolley of organs, bulbous offal protrusions wrapped in the white webbed translucence of membrane, gaping like the insides of an oversized citrus fruit divulging its rich juices to the soil.
And at the same time far more luxurious voyages and preparations were taking place in Pimville, only a few fathoms away. Bottles of single malt and cognac were being stacked by platinum wristed men. A top-of-the-range formation of matte black sedans brandishing a band of grimacing gold-toothed and silk suited villains barricaded the block, blasting house music until the earliest hours. They were trading stories of Bra-Gama’s gory exploits.
— One time he discovered one of his drivers was siphoning money, and he happened to be the speediest driver in his fleet so he had his brakes cut and watched him die in a pile-up on the N1, three other people died that day but Bra’G just saw them as collateral damage, recounted one of his henchmen.
— Remember when he had that girl who was young enough to be his granddaughter? She was barely halfway through high school when he picked her up and never dropped her home again (he always did love them young). And when he heard that she was in gallivanting in Rosebank accepting drinks and rides from other men his age, he cut her open from her naval to her anus and said that she wanted to be a loose girl so now she fit all the ginzas in Pimville inside her, then he stitched her up and disposed of her before instructing the boys to gang rape her in order to test his theory, reminisced another.
Whoever said killers couldn’t grieve hasn’t been to a crime lord’s funeral. Like devout believers they live under the self-induced anaesthesia of immortality so that when one of their own goes, it shatters their sense of detachment, leaving a crevasse where their repressed fears peek through and demons eagerly spill to the surface. The only medicine they have at their disposal in those moments is the ability to splurge recklessly on Italian garments, German cars, French and Scottish intoxicants, all as an expensive secular protest against time: Spending like there’s no tomorrow because for most of them, there won’t be.
Saturday morning came with the painful crows of emaciated poultry. Neither home had slept by the time a fogged sun frowned upon an industrially impaled Soweto horizon. The Zwane household was bombarded first by a large man in starched white vestments, his complexion freckled and yellow, and his movements as rushed as a stockbroker before the first bell.
— Where’s the body? He asked nonchalantly as he whizzed through a room cushioned with the hunched-over bodies of women weeping wrapped in blankets and covered heads- distant friends and relatives of the deceased. These were women who were blessed with disproportionate measures of tears and had therefore elevated mourning to a performance art, choreography completely abstracted from its object. He was escorted by the eldest daughter of the household to a room occupied by her sisters. Fingers of light were creeping in through burglar barred windows. A gleaming ebony casket formed the centrepiece of the room which was barely three square metres in volume. The sisters surrounded it in silence like a shrine, and whilst they melted it stood insoluble, the hideous leftover vessel of an incandescent passenger, a stone-skinned idol to absorb all of their misdirected prayers. — Oh Gogo! How can leave us to walk this world alone? The pallbearers were promptly called to excavate her. They were delicate though pressured by time and by the freckled priest who speedily prayed whilst he shepherded the proceedings and the casket landed briskly into a black station wagon modified into an expedient hearse.
On its drive it joined with the matte-black convoy of Bra-Gama’s mourners. The haphazard intensity of Saturday morning traffic in Soweto is only ever punctuated by the yields of respect for convoys like these to pass. It’s these kinds of quiet rituals that keep us African in spite of our supplanted realms of capitalist apathy. The convoy was overtaken by a garrison of taxis that served as a scythe to clear the path. Weekend commuters understood that their carriages had lost a monarch which meant they wouldn’t be blaringly hooting for their attention or abruptly stopping on the sidewalk for their hand-gestured hails today.
Soon both funeral processions realised, when they were nearing their destination and neither diverted along the way, that they were headed towards the same place. Jagged hand-painted signage reading ‘MANDLA AND SIYANDA’S FUNERAL PARLOUR’ in droopy cursive hoisted the flag which brought them all like well-struck golf balls to a befuddled halt.
As both processions parked and discussed the confusion, each assumed the other was lost. It was in this exact moment when Siyanda emerged to greet them both and their collective anxiety melted into the white noise of his smile. He came and informed them of the mess apologetically however he reassured them that both services would still run according to schedule with only slight adjustments to their respective programs. The plan he and Mandla had conceived was to relay between them, trapping the families into experiencing to each other’s grief. They believed that at the very least it would draw them into cordial forms of empathy, like reading a stranger’s obituary in the newspaper. It would be an equidistant exploration of pain, the clawing feeling in one’s throat recognisable to all those who’d cherished something they’d lost.
The pews of the hall were partitioned into two wings. Ma-Zwane’s family and friends were ushered in to the east wing and as they were getting seated her body was pushed past on a contraption that looked like a fully horizontal version of a pram. Its melancholy wheels squeaked against the hardwood floor which bore its own secret eulogies lodged underneath the varnish, the deposits of some unwanted and overabundant mineral.
When all were seated and the casket was adequately positioned behind an unsmiling portrait of Ma-Zwane, as elegantly dressed now and in the effigy as she was for all of her life, the Gama homestead was allowed to enter and fill the west wing. They decorated it with peacock feather couture and the mischievous glints of stolen jewellery. A friendlier portrait of a grinning potbellied man in a porkpie hat and an open pinstriped shirt presided over a gold-trimmed oak casket carrying a ghost already immortalized by the oceans of blood he irrigated in his lifetime (not to mention the blood that continues to spill in his name).
Siyanda ascended to the pulpit and spoke into a cordless microphone clutched in his large right hand. He opened the service with a prayer then proceeded to explain that the programs would be evenly distributed starting with the Zwane’s reading of the obituary by the deceased’s granddaughter, the first university graduate in her family, after which the Gama’s would follow suit and thus it would go for each item in the program. — But first I’d like to invite brother Mandla to start us off with a hymn.
Even the elderly rose to their feet when Mandla approached his keyboard and the Holy Spirit began to pour thinly from his silvery fingers. He was singing an old hymn from the homelands from where everyone in the room’s forefathers were brought by isolated hunger to the mines and Soweto was created to cage them from the northern empires carved with their very own flesh, the scenic skyline bi-product of oppression: Egoli-The city of stolen gold and broken promises. And so the hymn goes:
Senzeni Na -Senzeni Na (What have we done to deserve this)
— My fellow daughters and sons of the Almighty, today we’re here to lay to rest two great pillars of the community uMa-Zwane and uBra-Gama. We all know that they didn’t exactly agree with each other on how things should be done. Though we also know that many times we could turn to either of them for protection depending on the problems which faced us, and neither of them would turn us way.
— And I don’t know about all of you but I believe the Bible when it says that God has a plan for all his children. And both these children of God were carrying out his plan in their own ways. Any army needs both soldiers and messengers to win its war and we are in a war, brothers and sisters, a war against love and against African values.
— It’s in times like these that we need leaders and we’re burying two of our leaders today. But new leaders will always be born and as long as we trust in God, hope is never lost. We’ve been through this before. We endure various forms of burial every day. Our dreams, our stories, our dignity, our simplest desires, all die a little each day. Half of being African is waving good-bye to the people, places and things you love the most. It’s the cross only we as a people are strong enough to bear.
The rest of the service went as smoothly as everyone had hoped. Mother’s danced, father’s clapped, and wounds closed through the disinfectant usage of words, music and prayer. After that both caskets were carried back into their hearses as the choir sang them off. Uncles snuck in rushed cigarettes during the commotion. Aunts sombrely chatted and made last minute arrangements for the after-tears. Everyone disconnectedly re-entered their vehicles. It was not a quick process, especially because of the nunnery bussed in from Durban in a hired PUTCO- a black and white millipede of piety tapering in through its doors.
When the combined procession eventually made it to the cemetery, they finally separated. Soweto cemetery is a pointillist painting dabbed with a million juxtaposed memorials. The competitive spirit of the ghetto still lives here. Makeshift crosses mark the graves of the most impoverished sleepers. They remain as anonymous below the ground as they were above it, populating apathetically congested worlds on both sides.
Then there are the regular concrete tombstones that form the mezzanine of the necro-hierarchy. What immediately stands out as you walk amongst them is how brief the life-spans tend to be. The strange uniquely African feeling of being older than most of the ghosts which haunt you.
Closer to the centre can be found the cream of the death crop: Granite monoliths guarded by stone angels and caged bouquets of flowers. Most of these graves belong to people who long made it out of Soweto to the northern suburbs but whose parents and extended families still resided in Soweto when they died. The countless legends of business, sports, politics, music and television that Soweto’s produced are all commemorated here. It’s the hallowed township’s macabre version of the Hollywood walk of fame, paved with fallen decayed flowers instead of stars.
Saturdays are funeral days in this part of the world, days reserved for mourning. So when the guests of the two funerals arrived, they were but a fraction of the hundreds of processions burying their loved ones that day. And when their respective priests rushed through their last rites monologues, their voices were drowned by a cacophony of neighbouring priests presiding over a pavilion of neighbouring funerals. Every element felt squeezed by limitations of space and time. Services separated by mere centimetres, overlapping into Venn diagrams of grievers not knowing which priest was theirs to listen to.
— You know it’s even worse in Durban, a lady could be heard saying in reference to the claustrophobia of death in Soweto. — We’ve run out of space to bury people. The graves kiss each other all the way to the hills.
After this, all of the mourners dispersed to the after-tears portion of the events. Vague familiarity is the only invitation necessary at these occasions so there are always those vagrants in the township who survive purely through a communal itinerary of weddings and funerals. Queues snake to the street with welcomed uninvited guests waiting to be dished for and everyone somehow gets served, no stomach ever leaves events like these still empty. It’s the most beautiful gift to witness being received.
Is death an end or a beginning? It’s a question all men have endeavoured to answer since the glass in our skulls first darkened into centuries of meaningless sand. How can something that arrives screaming leave so discreetly? Entire histories like insignificant grains of sand slipping through arthritic fingers. Singing us all to sleep with bitter symphonies of erasure. Bleaching the earth of its blood. Truth is nothing more than rumour told to us by our captors. Teaching us to only dream within its rigid parameters. It allocates us time and then instructs us to cry when that time runs out.
But what if we don’t cry?
What if we sing instead?
What if we generously feed strangers and get drunk on crates of beer that convert into furniture for our instantaneous friendships to rest on and debate and laugh loudly ‘til the sun rises? If we have to live such amputated lives then at least we can be reassembled through our deaths. Besides death, what’s left to take from us?
Besides death, what’s left?
Edward Kgosidintsi is a 29 year old South African writer currently based in Gaborone, Botswana. He’s been working as an arts and culture writer and critic for four years with a focus on the excavation and exposure of the African avant-garde. He’s also co-written two plays and recently wrote and directed his first documentary. After his parents divorced when he was three, he was raised by his mother who worked as a senior civil servant and was deployed all over the nation in various positions during the early transformation phase of South Africa’s democracy. Through this he got to experience kaleidoscopic glimpses of the South African narrative, staying in nearly all its major provinces and cities. The stories he writes are an assemblage of those fragmented glimpses. No story feels complete and the characters never reach any profound resolutions. Instead he seeks to give the reader a panoramic snapshot of the contemporary South African narrative riddled with its contradictory notions of inclusion and exclusion, invasion and embrace, alienation and belonging.
Related country: South Africa