Is factionalism reverberating among the dead, in ANC Public Funerals?


How did ‘last wishes’ become denying fellow cadres to attend your funeral?

The reality of our individual demise framed in claims of a death is an undeniable reality, for all of us are guaranteed an unknown expiry date. Funerals throughout time are known for their commemorative nature where the remaining loved ones, family, friends, associates, and a diverse community expression momentarily pause in honour a life lived. Funerals therefore hold a solemn if not unique moment since it no different to birth occurs only once. Funerals may adopt various frames informed by the belief systems of the deceased and those of close relations. Those of a religious or Faith persuasion lend themselves to a sense of morality.

With our chequered history of colonialism and in second coming of a special kind, apartheid, funerals afforded great opportunities to address masses in a sense of mobilisation for a just cause. Due to its informal nature where friends and foes all were welcome to show up, it assisted the amplification of the liberation cry against a heretic system that denied a common humanity. One involuntarily here thinks of the deaths of a Steve Biko or the ‘Cradock Four’ (Sicelo Mahlauli, Sparrow Mkhonto, Fort Calata and Matthew Goniwe). Funerals were therefore used to communicate, inform, disseminate, connect, mobilize and rejuvenate attendees in the liberation cause in a time when we were under siege with Section 29 arrests and when more than three people considered a crowd in gathering. My prism on funerals in SA deliberately adopts the majority of black description and experience as practice.

On another level I grew up in a time when there were no restrictions on funerals, it did not really matter whether you knew the deceased, attending was a simple welcomed moral support fact. It was being communal and interpreted as such. We can accept that with time and its sophistication of funerals aided by the undeniable economic implications, families increasingly became forced for private and sometime not so obvious reasons to adopt forms of exclusivity of attendance.

However, the aforementioned exclusivity did not contain in itself a punitive element as we see in this season. I have attended many funerals I equally as member of the South African Christian Clergy presided over many more in the last 27years of serving in that function.

A recent and somewhat extraordinary phenomenon struck as finding nesting grounds among us. It appears public ANC funerals are becoming extensions of naked political feuds, where condemnation and vilification of others are immanent in frame of a moral authority to condemn. It confirms a sense of exclusivity with another dimension. It portends a form of exacted punitive particularity that communicates a personal political and arguably a retributive notion. It comes draped in claim of final wishes of the deceased, which renders it incontrovertible. Perhaps the final words of the deceased always mattered, and that right must not be stripped of its sacrosanct status. However in a private funeral sense it appears more manageable as opposed to in a public funeral sense.

While the right of any deceased to direct his/her funeral in attendants and programme exists, and should not be tampered with, the advanced notion of exacted punitive and retributive nature, in barring others, can thus be challenged as not typical of the known Ubuntu (African) or Christian funeral ethic.

One must equally accept that due to the coalescing nature of both public and private dimensions of funerals, one is simply denied to know all details to conclude totally objectively. In this instance I refer to three public funerals of recent nature, for evidencing to varying degrees a denial of fellow comrades to show their last respects.

I ordinarily would not have ventured an opinion in this regard, but for the stature of these three individuals, Rev. Stofile (‘Boet Stof), Uncle Kathy (Ahmed Kathrada) and Bra’ Willie (Prof. Keorapitsile Willie Kgositsile). These are to varying degrees giants, and have left indelible marks in the liberation struggle context and we as South African remain indebted to them. It is the reality of what they represent in totality of our historical struggle that compels one in this season to break with silence and venture to ask, why we allow the demon of factionalism to reverberate in the corridors of the dead? I will not engage the details of each funeral suffice to evidence the aspect of a barring of some comrades as a reality, in underscoring the potential factional reality of the ANC even in the chambers of death. Can those whom we collectively loved; respect and value, in last wish really divide instead of uniting us in their deaths until eternity re-echoes a factionalism that has captured the totality of our existence and beyond?

Instead of an accepted justified economic reason for its exclusivity for attendance recent public funerals attest another dimension and that is of excluding leaders and people one did not agree with politically or those one have already found guilty in a public court of media opinion for an offense that may not even have been tested anywhere. This forming subculture  extends to funerals a platform for politicising relationships that may have always existed though not without disagreement. To be barred from showing ones last respect when you have lived virtually your whole life with a person is somewhat antithetical to the essence of life.

In my search to make sense of this new phenomenon that sees the retort of the ANC dead re-echoing the toxic factionalism and reverberating in punitive barring its own, I am asking can we free the dead from this evil or are we to accept this is where we are? Are we to embrace this practice as the new order, what are the implications of this new practice, how sustainable is it for the cornerstone objectives of an organisation that prides itself in being a broad church yet is ravaged by an entrenched factionalism of hate and a sense of blatant unforgiving.

While one may not have a view on this as a private aspect, the frame and acceptance of Faith as the guiding light presents more challenges when factored into the equation. It would then hold that when the remains of the deceased enters the doors of a religious setting or place of worship, where a prescribed  order is adopted informed by the accepted dictates of a Supreme Being in an eternal versus temporal realities, peace instead of war with all is the acceptable norm. How then did funerals in an African and Christian setting in post democratic society become the hallowed spot to celebrate disunity and factionalism in continuance of  a marauding of the other?

If one is immortalised in one’s last wish and that wish nakedly militates the order of the Faith diaphragm one chooses to embrace as final departure point, is there a not than a disjuncture if not a tangible dialectic tension that casts the demised in eternity of conflict as to his choices for and against his own Faith? Is it wrong to expect a form of transcendence of the temporal in exchange of that, which is eternal and to let transcendence advocate for a peace with all? What then is the theological prism for this practice and how sustainable is it within the dictates of a subscribed Faith or even an Ubuntu values frame?

What then are the implications for that accepted Faith conviction, and how does it resonate with the final wishes of the deceased, in evidencing unforgiving. Centred on the claims of last wishes of the deceased, funerals have become exclusive. For those who do subscribe to a notion of God, how do ban someone from showing their last respect as your last wish and hope to see a God you hitherto have not seen? What then is the remote hope of seeing God if one with this act confirms that you could not forgive the offense tested or untested?

Is it true that the demon of factionalism is this powerful as, permeating every sphere of our society, defined in culture, group, religion, media, business, labour, judiciary even education until it arrogantly pronounces itself prominent as reaching the exit point of human existence as we know in earth form? How does a dying human, contorted by the pain of his personal frailty, convulsed by the anguish of his own demise, and conflicted by his utter dependence on others find space and time to advocate in eternal sense a judgment on others when he / she has thrown him/herself on the wings of mercy for pardoning of personal wrong at a higher appeal?

Can we afford the dead, immortalised as captured in an eternity of hate and accusation, where there is no hope at redemption? Is this new ethic giving a new meaning to the words ‘let the dead bury the dead’? Or shall we rise above this and claim a collective mercy for in the bigger scheme of life we are no better beings than others; our very own demise shows this. It would appear for those of Christian Faith the – ‘love your enemy as yourself’ still holds sway as non-negotiable.

Clyde N. Ramalaine

Commentator and Writer