Shifting socio-economic priorities, even in death

I watched the coffin being lowered into the belly of the earth at a cemetery in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. It was a semi-sombre, semi-happy affair. The ladies were so well dressed, well-manicured; putting the same effort that one would for a wedding. Except the colour of their dresses was black.

After the burial, we went for what they call “after tears”, a deliciously cooked buffet meal and alcohol. Observed by outsiders, the after tears can be naively described as a gathering of mourners where there is lots of laughter, food and booze, celebrating the life of the departed. That’s how we bid farewell to an uncle, father, husband and brother – surrounded by a handful of relatives from Zimbabwe and many of his South African friends and colleagues. His father was not there. He was too sickly and frail to travel to South Africa for his son’s burial.

You see, we did not bury my uncle in South Arica because there was no money to repatriate his body to Zimbabwe. Neither was it his wish to be buried outside his home country. My uncle had acquired a South African Identity card and passport, spoke in South African languages and had a new South African name. At the age of 55, he had nothing, in terms of documentation that linked him to his home country.

In order to access the same benefits that SA citizens have, my uncle like many other Zimbabweans decided he would cut ties with his identity. Obtaining an SA ID opened many doors for my uncle in a country that he had come to love as his own. Coupled with his own hard work, ambition and ingenuity he ran a commuter taxi company and lived comfortably in a home away from home. Many of his SA colleagues were surprised that he was not born in their country and had only come years earlier. Initially, we all thought it was a no brainer that he would be buried in Zimbabwe next to his elder brother and grandfather. But his Zimbabwean ID was nowhere in sight and the only proof of his life was that as a South African. A painful decision, particularly for his father who could not come to bid his son farewell, was made to bury him in the land where he worked and the name he had been known by for the big part of his adult life. His South African wife and children welcomed the decision. For his children, the link to Zimbabwe was as hazy and almost meaningless.

So, on that half somber, half joyful Saturday of February 2014, he was buried with a name that was never his, his spirit sent away by people who did not know his totem. His father could not be there to give him to those who had departed before him. His grave was a number and will remain just a number among the hundreds of other graves.

His father asked for some soil from his grave. And soil, he got.

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