Have you ever listened to people give reasons for why something happened and found you differed with all of them? Differing silently though, otherwise they might think you are mad. I’ve always felt like that about the most gruesome of crimes, crimes against children: babies and infants in particular. I’ve always felt this idea that we should just “lock up the perpetrators and throw away the key” hurts us more than it does the perpetrator. We never get the real reason for their crime so someone else is bound to repeat it.
Today’s blog is that kind of blog, it takes a look at the reasons we have these horrible sexual crimes against infants. These crimes are so shameful I feel judged just bringing up the subject, but my little inner voice says I must not hide behind the fear of judgement. That I must do my bit to contribute towards driving society towards that a more saner existence.
If you’ve read any of my other posts you’ll appreciate by now that I’m not big on wordplay or word manipulation. I try to say what I mean, which is to say that today’s title needs a little bit of explanation. It plays on words, just a bit. It’s tempting to just say “Hurting people hurts people”, but that is almost absurd to say because it’s glaringly obvious, if you hurt people, they get hurt, duh! A much more apt, albeit longer title would be: “People who are hurting inside(emotionally) are more likely to hurt other people”. Get it? Phew, glad we got that one out of the way.
We live in a society where a lot of people are hurting inside all of the time. I’m not talking just grief and mourning but hurt that is a result of a variety of factors. You’ve probably read or heard it said that abuse victims are more likely to become abusers themselves, but like me you have probably just accepted that as one of those given truths: I was abused so I will abuse. The truth is the equation doesn’t balance out just that easily. There are so many abuse victims who emerge from the abuse more determined than ever NOT to inflict the same abuse on other people.
So there has to be something to the equation that makes some abuse victims become abusive themselves. These people are hurting inside. Continuously so. This condition of continued hurt prevents the individual from seeing a way out of their hurt and as a result they unconsciously inflict that hurt on others close to them. Even worse when this is done consciously.
Believe it or not, the paragraph above is what has kept me from publishing this particular blog for a few weeks now. I know its contents to be true but I had no tangible evidence to back it up. My blogs aren’t particularly academic so you won’t find lots of references to scientific journals but I do like having my opinions backed up by experts. So when I couldn’t find an expert to back up my theory that people who rape infants are hurting inside I decided to sit on this. And then bam! This morning on my way to work, a gruesome story of the rape of a six-week old baby on the radio got me thinking again.
The talk-show host interviewed Dr Amelia Kleijn about her doctoral thesis. In short, she went behind bars and chose 10 convicted infant/baby rapists who were willing to open up to her in a bid to understand what we as society term “sick, horrible, unthinkable”. And she asked the question: Why? Who rapes a six-week old infant? The results are complex, but in short: all 10 of those men had zero empathy, they were from broken homes, mostly poor, some were abused in childhood, no positive role models to speak of, but most importantly, to me anyway, all of them had an emotional score to settle. Not with their victim but with society: their overwhelming motive was “revenge” for childhood hurt, bullying and abuse. The trigger to do what they did was trivial: a girlfriend insulted their mother, a man insulted their manhood but they all had a score to settle. In other words, we could loosely say they had an undiagnosed emotional disorder of some kind.
As I write this, South African society is reeling with shock at the recent murders of two girl toddlers in the Diepsloot informal settlement. Not long ago, Anene Booysens was murdered in such a gruesome way that her convicted attacker ripped her open after raping her, leaving her entrails exposed. Who does that? Who is so twisted as to rape and murder a two year old? Just the thought of it sends shivers down my spine.
Another recent case that’s so incomprehensible is one where both biological parents ganged up on their own infant. I say ganged up because both were convicted for her death. The child had been through it all, malnutrition, broken ribs, cracked skull, the lot. At the hands of her own biological parents. Something is wrong with us, not just the parents, if we do not endeavor to find out why those parents did what they did. Sometimes the sufferers of such abuse survive and become friends with our children, mine and yours. Sometimes they become dysfunctional adults, and we call them “sick” when they do unspeakable things to others.
These are just a few of the high profile cases that have been reported in the media. Some sections of our media have suggested we are a nation at war with itself, at war with its children. The truth of the matter is family murders, sexual abuse, physical abuse of children and women are belt of shame around our society. And we cannot seem to put our finger on the cause of the problem.
Depending on who’s got the platform the causes of our societal ills range from a male-dominated society, religion, sexism, apartheid, poverty, neglect of parental responsibilities, poor education, unemployment, stress, you name it.
But when it comes to the most gruesome of crimes, the ones that fill you with shame just hearing it said in the news: the rape and murder of a 2-year old girl, the rape and murder of a 75-year-old granny, the murder and mutilation of a lesbian, a man shooting his two-year-old and four-year-old kids and then himself, a father raping his own daughters, the list is endless, everybody just throws their hands up in the air and calls for the “harshest possible sentence” against the perpetrators. As long as we caught them, it’s all good, they’ll rot in jail. But surely, besides justice and closure for the victims and their families, it is our duty to ask the most difficult questions of ourselves.
Why did the quiet boy next door commit such a vicious crime? Why did he turn on someone he knew and brutalize her so badly simply because she is a lesbian? Why did Anene Booysen’s killer murder her in such a vicious fashion, to the extent of ripping her tummy open? What possesses a father, who loved his children to bits, to take their lives, and then his own? Uncomfortable questions, unsettling questions and indeed painful but I’m convinced that our quest for a better society lies in getting to the bottom of these questions.
It is my contention that each one of the people who commit these vicious, violent crimes do it because they are hurting inside, emotionally that is. Hear me out before you dismiss me as an apologist for every murderer, rapist or child molester sitting in prison. There are people who unfortunately commit these crimes because society has its deviants. But in the main, I believe people who hurt people they love or should love do so because they themselves are hurting inside. Hurting people hurt people.
Our society mostly believes what it sees, if we cannot see it we conclude it cannot be real. Unless we see the symptoms manifest on a physical body and a doctor making a diagnosis we are not convinced. I mean, there are still people who question the existence of HIV, not that they wear badges declaring their doubt, no, they simply don’t believe such exists. That a ‘normal-looking’ person can be afflicted with a disease-causing agent without presenting any symptoms is beyond their comprehension. So it is with mental illnesses, a ‘normal-looking’ person with a mental illness carries on just like everyone else.
It doesn’t help that society has chosen to confuse mental illness with mental disability. The result of such confusion is that one treatable condition, mental illness, is usually left untreated because of the stigma that goes with with it. I mean let’s face, who wants to be known as ‘that one who maybe has a mental disability’. That’s the damage that stigmatization does, it leaves people with totally treatable illnesses afraid to be diagnosed, in fact unwilling to be diagnosed because ‘you are mad, I’m not mad!’.
What does this have to do with people committing unspeakable deeds against people they love? Everything! Mental illnesses such as clinical depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders and others affect people in a whole variety of ways. We might both be clinically depressed but the “symptoms” might present in totally different ways. One person might develop a penchant for taking little risks like gambling, another might develop something else. My point here is it’s quite possible to have a society which has a sizeable portion of its population afflicted by a wide range of mental illnesses. Really, you might say. Yes really. You accept that a non-communicable illness like hypertension can develop into a national threat but won’t accept the same of a mental illness?
Apologies to the scientifically inclined amongst you, the example I’m about to give is a personal one and obviously anecdotal. I look back at times and wonder why it is that the periods of heavy depression that I’ve gone through were accompanied by a lot of emotional pain. Pain amplified by the “unfairness” of the people around you. Yes people around you, even those close to you. The lines get so blurred you see them as the source of your pain and every act by them becomes confirmation that they have it in for you.
For me, the depressed state is incredibly lonely. I think the loneliness amplifies the emotional pain. Leading to strange and funny thoughts. In my first year in boarding school I encountered the one or two remaining bullies in the school. They just took. Anything they wanted. They took. But here’s the deal, when you are as emotionally fragile as I was as a teenager, all sorts of thoughts cross your mind. It’s a good thing guns and knives were not easily available because in my bullied state of mind, I had it in me to one day, one day, get my own back. In the mean time, I just continued hurting, silently.
I’m never surprised when a bullied kid takes revenge, never. Because I was once that kid. Like a deer caught in the headlights of a fast-approaching car, the bullied victim feels like they have no choices. From where I stand now it seems excessive that a child would take his mom’s gun to school to deal with the bully, but it would have seemed like a very logical choice when in the bullied state of mind. The hurt I felt didn’t justify the level of revenge I wished to take, but it gave rise to those totally disproportionate thoughts of revenge.
Because I was hurting inside, emotionally, I could contemplate hurting someone else. Justifiably or not. Hurting people hurt people.
I avoid quoting Christian preachers when I write because I want non-Christian readers to feel at home and relate. I need to acknowledge though that my title is one I heard during one Joyce Meyer’s preachings. She is a self confessed abuse survivor, who readily admits: ‘hurting people hurt people’.
In the fog of the emotional cloud of pain that develops due to your situation, your actions can make you seem like a complete psychopath. This is what happens when we react after a mass shooting, how could he? He was just a ‘normal kid’. According to you, he was a normal kid. Medicine has not yet developed a pain-o-meter to measure the levels of emotional and psychological upheavals that result from a combination of emotional fragility and circumstances.
Whenever I hear of a case of a ‘normal’ loving father hurting his children I wish for such a scale because it would help. Or a thirty-year-old raping a granny. We dismiss it as Nyaope(cocaine/heroine mixture) but never really question why the kid took to drugs in the first place. Oh, you took drugs but would never stoop that low, maybe you have never felt as worthless as that young man, that the pain of his worthlessness would lead him to hurt others in the way that he does. I pray that you will not take my literary liberties here to mean I think they are justified in acting that way, drugs or no drugs.
But you and I should be looking for solutions, thinking outside of the box as they say, asking those uncomfortable questions. However unpalatable the truth.
My fellow Christians will feel like rapping me over the knuckles for not suggesting that the answer lies in the church. I believe it does, but to simply say that’s the answer without taking into consideration that in certain societies the church itself has contributed immensely to the perpetration of sexual crimes against children and indeed, covering up would be insensitive beyond words.
I’m convinced the basic unit of the family is central to getting our society right. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting a mother-father-child unit is the answer to everything. I just see a family structure of well-balanced emotionally mature adults rearing children as our best weapon against most if not all societal ills. Those emotional imbalances, mental illnesses and other disorders are easily picked up in a family setting before they manifest negatively in society in the form of infant rapes.
This is not an easy undertaking. The same Dr Klein suggests that up to 60% of South African children grow up without a father figure in their lives. 60%? Staggering! Even if the 50% in that figure grow up in balanced families with caring mothers, uncles and grandparents, it is that 10% that we should be worried about. The 10% in child-headed homes who have no one to guide their emotional ups and downs. I believe that’s the 10% that we ask ourselves this question about: who rapes a six-week old baby? Yet we are rearing them everyday.
The restoration of the basic family unit would go a long way in reducing most of our ills. Speaking with reference to our beloved country, of all the crimes that have been perpetrated against the people of this land, the worst was the fragmentation of the basic family unit through policies like the migrant labour system. At one time we could say: it takes a village to raise a child, that village has been ripped apart. And each time the rape of an infant is reported, we are reaping the results of that destruction of the family unit.
The absence of a mother, father, aunt or uncle and even just responsible adult figures in the lives of most of our children is hurting these kids more than we know. Whilst not all of them will turn into infant rapists, we should learn and understand that our own society is breeding those angry men. The church should step up and fill the void created by absent adults in households. Society must explore ways and means of not just ‘supporting’ child-headed households but finding out how we can get back to “it takes a village to raise a child”.
Okay, okay, so I’m a sucker for gadgets. Not such a nut though that I would subscribe to STUFF magazine or Apple magazine. No. Just your low-level sucker. I love the idea of owning the latest gadget, I so wish I could afford them but I can’t, so I make do with what I can afford. That’s why the impending demise of Research In Motion(RIM), the makers of Blackberry, brings a tinge of sadness to my heart, maybe even the proverbial tear.
See, I think gadgets, cell phones in particular are a good sign of a nation’s progress. Pause. Just kidding. I hope you did pause right there, otherwise I got you.
No, seriously though, I’m a bit of a dreamer and gadgets probably represent some of my most far-fetched dreams coming to life. Did you know that South Africa has a cellphone penetration of over 100%? There are more SIM cards in this country than people.
I have this belief that technology, especially mobile technology, can and will play a major role in the fight against poverty going forward.
Each time I get to a service delivery area such as a rates payments hall or an overcrowded public hospital I always end up day-dreaming about a day when people, specifically poor people, can use the one technological gadget that 80% of our population can afford to navigate the demeaning wait at a public hospital or rates payment hall, the cellular phone.
Imagine it, if instead of getting to a public hospital at 5am a person could SMS their unique identity number or use an app to book a place in line,get a response to get to the hospital between 11h00 and 12h30, that would remove a 6-hour waiting period, during which hunger and other frustrations set in. I’m certain some IT boffin somewhere can make it happen. I mean, we have apps that can do almost anything, book flight tickets, buy insurance, make coffee…ok it’s not here yet but it’s coming.
What? You think it’s just dreams? I remember my first time in a gym many years ago, I just couldn’t understand how a treadmill could measure the calories I burnt during my running, now there’s an app to measure the distance you run, the calories you burn, the speed at which you run, even where and when you stopped! And you think apps to lighten the load of the poor is not possible? Come on!
Of course this would require technological improvements such as Wifi being freely available, or at least very affordable, instead of marching for economic freedom we should march for technological advancement. Free WiFi everywhere!
Imagine several thousand phones beeping to tell residents of a planned water shortage tomorrow between 09:00 and 15:00, in a village somewhere, instead of the indignity of finding out when trying to flush the toilet… It’s probably happening in the developed world, why not for the poor.
Who would have thought, a few years ago, that a person could walk into a little shop somewhere and send money 500km away, it’s happening now. Previously people needed to take up to three taxis and use quite a bit of money to send their loved ones money. Not anymore.
If you thought the love of gadgets should be the preserve of geeks and IT boffins think again. If you don’t want to believe this then tell me why a 10 or 15 year old today doesn’t know what a telegram is? Somebody had a dream and look how you are reading a telegram today, on your phone or computer! Only you call it email, SMS, WeChat or Whatsapp.
I couldn’t help but wonder if technology would not have come to the aid of the people of Cape Town a week ago. See, the weather people saw the adverse weather coming. What if the mobile phones of the people in the shack areas had beeped, sending out a warning a day before the floods? Or even hours before? “Move to safety, terrible storm coming”. I don’t think it’s impossible. It’s quite doable.
How about in war-ravaged countries, prior warnings through the mobile device could save thousands. “Sick, bloodthirsty rebels approaching, move to next town”. Ok so I’m dreaming , allow me to.
I hope you too will become a gadget-to-improve-lives sucker.
In my daydreaming days I used to wonder why it is that a virtual soccer stadium could not be created so tickets didn’t have to be sold out. Imagine it, a full stadium with life-size virtual images (holograms) that are beamed live onto the pitch as things would be happening in the original game. I have read one or two reports that suggest that this will not remain a dream forever. After all, TuPac Shakur was brought back to life on stage for the purposes of a performance.
What do you dream technology could do to improve lives?
In May 2008 I was standing at the entrance of the shop I run when there were sudden shouts of “They are coming!They are coming!” Only a few hawkers were left in the usually bustling market street. “They” were the marauding group of people who were supposedly rounding up foreigners, looting their shops and in some cases inflicting untold violence on them.
“Are you just going to stand there and do nothing? Close your shop quickly, they are coming!” This was a regular customer urging me to close up shop. The funny thing was he wasn’t going anywhere. His eyes were fixed on me waiting for my next move. I felt sorry for all the “foreigners” who were losing their livelihoods in various parts of our country but I had always felt a certain amount of comfort, albeit uneasy, in the fact that I’m a local. South African born and bred. This madness was about “foreigners” after all.
Yet here was this fellow waiting for my next move. “Make sure your car is safe, they are also burning cars belonging to foreigners”. I reluctantly moved to close up shop but I was a little annoyed and confused, why was this fellow giving me the looks and attention he was giving me? That’s when he said, “we may know you but we can’t protect you when they get here!” More confusion.
But then it dawned on me, he thought I was a foreigner! He was doing his bit in “getting rid” of the foreigners. I wanted to explain that he was wrong, that my great-great-grandparents, my grandparents and my parents were all born in South Africa, what right had he to mistake me for a foreigner. I know of no other country in which I have family. But before I could relate my story to him he was gone, I was left deciding whether to act or stay put. Eventually I closed up and drove to safety.
As I drove, I understood the feelings of the main character in the movie Hotel Rwanda. His neighbours had suddenly decided he was a cockroach and shouldn’t be spared in the ethnic cleansing that was going on in Rwanda. His tribe was nearly decimated in the 1994 genocide. How did it come to this? That I, a born and bred South African had suddenly been turned into an object of hate, xenophobia to be exact? Are my fellow countrymen inherently afraid of foreigners?
I’m no different from most South Africans in terms of my place of origin. I have both a rural and an urban background. Born in the Northern province of Limpopo, I was also exposed to urban life in the Gauteng East Rand township of Tembisa. The majority of South Africans lead this dual existence, thanks to the migrant labour system that apartheid relied on to keep the racist wheels of commerce turning. We have an urban existence, necessitated by the need to earn, and a rural existence, the place we call “home”.
In the eighties, at the height of the civil war in Mozambique, our tiny village of Elim in Limpopo started receiving its first Mozambican war refugees. These are men and women who ran away from the civil war in their country to seek greener pastures in South Africa. Most of them were received into South African families to do manual work in exchange for a place to sleep, eat and live.
It was quite common for those rural families to have a person of Mozambican origin doing either housework if female, or field work if male. I’ll be honest with you, these people were not always welcomed with the warmest of welcomes, in certain areas of the then Gazankulu homeland, the refugees established settlements that were specifically meant for themselves. I suppose it was mainly for the purposes of being amongst people of the same customs. There may have been ill-feelings in the community towards them on a superficial level, but on the whole they were part and parcel of the community. No xenophobic attacks. In fact, we didn’t even know the word existed.
In the urban setting of Tembisa, one encountered a different kind of refugee, more an economic one than a war refugee, although the two were clearly linked. Mozambicans in the urban areas came this side with a clear purpose of earning a living and sending money and goods back home. They also went home as and when they could. Most started their own business and integrated themselves into their surroundings to such an extent that most have bought houses and built homes here. Again, xenophobic attacks were a foreign thing if you’ll excuse the pun.
So, when did South Africans turn from being welcoming hosts into monsters who burnt foreigners in the streets for merely being from a different country?
I want to suggest to you that South Africans never changed, but their country did. Most black South Africans have never felt they ‘owned’ their townships. In fact, some people in their seventies and eighties are only now receiving the title deeds to their houses. In apartheid years, black people were forbidden from owning land and property in urban areas. What does this have anything to do with xenophobia? Indulge me for a moment here. Let me play amateur psychologist or sociologist if you like.
Stephen R. Covey, in his bestseller, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People tells of how one of his children refused to share a toy he had received at a birthday party. No other kid could touch the toy. Parents with toddlers have experienced this: in your heart you are praying your child will play the gracious host to his/her little toddler friends. Instead, the child keeps all the toys and refuses the other kids access. On further analysis, Stephen realized that his child refused to share a new toy because the child had not internalized his ownership of the toy. How can he give away what he doesn’t think belongs to him yet?
This is exactly what is being asked of the average township black South African, share your resources, land and space with our newly arriving neighbours. Can South Africans truly share what they have no experience of owning?
Floods of economic refugees burst into South Africa soon after the onset of democracy in 1994. Black South Africans had until then lived a sheltered existence, save for entertainment brought through by the heavily-censored South African Broadcasting Corporation(SABC). The only images that average South Africans got of the economic refugees from the rest of Africa were those of foreigners involved in crime. No images of doctors or university professors.
Indeed, an average township person does not know much about what foreign nationals based in the inner city do except what they read in the news which is most negative, drug dealings and the like.
Lately, a second or third wave of foreign nationals has descended upon the country with the sole purpose of establishing businesses here. There are places in the townships where every second house is a foreign-national owned shop. South Africans are still grappling with the ins and outs of their newly-earned democracy, very slow economic growth and the effects of centuries of a system meant to kill off any entrepreneurial spirit in them. On top of that they are watching a large group of mostly undocumented refugees who seem to arrive with cash in hand and establishing businesses almost overnight on their doorsteps. South Africans, like the child in Stephen Covey’s example, are being asked to give away something that they feel is theirs but have never felt a sense of ownership towards it.
The super-educated amongst us tell South African Business owners to wake up and compete. With which skills and capital?
The economic refugee problem is a global one. First world countries tend to have a more defined policy towards economic refugees, albeit sometimes xenophobic, with laws in place to regulate the movements of people wanting to establish business in their host countries. In the UK the national health system is legally protected from from foreigners. In most African countries, South Africa included, resources tend to be applied to efforts towards Job creation rather than ensuring the safe integration of immigrants into society.
The battle for scarce economic resources takes an ugly turn when the enemy is no longer perceived to be a slow growing economy but undocumented immigrants. The lack of a co-ordinated policy leaves these things to fester resulting in these sporadic attacks every so often.
Shockingly, some of the culprits is the attacks turn out to be foreigners who have been here long enough turning against the new waves of economic refugees.
The media, both local and international chose to label the violent flare-ups Xenophobia: an “intense or irrational fear of foreigners”. South Africa has large groups of Indian, Chinese, Pakistani, Zimbabweans and other groups of people who chose to settle here long before the “Xenophobic” attacks of 2008. None of them have ever been attacked for merely being from another country.
In classic “some of my best friends are white/black” fashion I think most South African can claim “some of my best friends are foreigners”. We have Chinatown and other places that are almost exclusively communities inhabited by “foreigners”, so when did the people of South Africa turn into people with “intense/irrational fear of foreigners?”
The violent flare-ups of 2008 only happened in the townships and informal settlements. The places most affected by the violence are characterized by grinding poverty in most instances, inadequate services(sanitation, electricity, schools), terribly high unemployment and mostly uncontrolled shelters(temporary housing/shacks) and zero law enforcement. It is no cliche that in the informal settlement one shacks door opens onto another shacks window. With dirty water often meandering around the shacks.
The online DailyMaverick notes that “South African xenophobia has also been explained by the rate of socio-economic inequality in the country. Not for nothing has it been pointed out that the greatest scourge of xenophobic violence has been perpetrated in margins of formal society, where foreign nationals compete with the poorest South Africans to eke out a menial living”.
Those that live in such poverty and conditions can be easily misled into believing that the Zimbabwean fellow in the next shack took your job. That is not an intense hatred of foreign nationals, it is a twisted logic that has existed since time immemorial, “those that look different from you are the cause of you problems”. People with twisted motives and minds are very good at exploiting these conditions to suit their own needs. Criminals come into the mix and according to the media, Xenophobia is born. Really? So all this time, we’ve been secretly habouring an intense fear of Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Pakistanis without knowing it?
I beg to differ. I am convinced that what was characterized as xenophobia in 2008 was actually a desperate cry of a desperate people. People find themselves very marginalized by society, people who do not possess the skills to tell their own stories eloquently because they have been denied access to education by the “system”. And the rest of society stood back and watched in horror as these uneducated “barbarians” attacked foreigners. Of the 62 odd people killed in the attacks, about a third(21) were South Africans.
Xenophobic people will not be so random as to kill their own. Xenophobic people will hate the object of their hatred no matter where they are. Rich or poor, employed or unemployed. Xenophobia doesn’t exclude towns and cities, poverty normally does.
Nobody has a manual on what form of Uprising the poor will choose. The “educated” and privileged in the media and society need to be critical enough to assess situations for what they are. Critical thinking is free and leads to better and last solutions.
A better question to ask would have been why are these “xenophobic” attacks limited to poverty-stricken areas?
So far, I’ve come across very few articles in the mainstream media that have suggested a different reasoning to the causes of what they choose to label xenophobia.
The fellow who “threatened” me is himself not gainfully employed. I think he would have relished the idea of obtaining a few free goods from looting the shop of a “foreign national”. Does he have an intense fear of foreigners? I doubt it,I believe he’s just a normal South African who got criminal intentions by capitalizing on a situation in which foreigners are made vulnerable by a mixture of conditions and circumstances beyond their control. Xenophobia? I’m not convinced.
Maybe I should give the last word to Kerry Chance, a PhD student who wrote for Slate in 2008:
“What’s more, it is important to note that the wealthy of any race or nationality were not among the attacked or displaced. In South African cities—in all cities—the rich work, live, and play in separate areas from the poor. Even when the attackers left their home turf, they didn’t head to the nearest wealthy Johannesburg suburb nor to the international airport adjacent to the epicenter of the attacks. Busloads of foreign tourists, ubiquitous in many townships, were unharmed.
But South Africa’s poor aren’t counted among the victims—they are cast as the perpetrators, the embodiment of xenophobia.
The New York Times declared, “Those left behind by the nation’s post-apartheid economy commonly blame those left even further behind, the powerless making scapegoats of the defenseless.” While some poor South Africans—like some politicians and elites—are hostile to poor foreigners, the attackers cannot be construed as representative of “the powerless.” Many township- and shack-dwellers across the country rushed to protect foreign migrants, organizing community watch groups and anti-xenophobic protests. At times, they worked with police (for whom there is no love lost).
Maybe instead of calling it Xenophobia, the mainstream media should have labelled it “Broke-on-Broke violence” as comedian Chris Rock is reported to have labelled it.
Funerals are, by nature, sombre affairs. Unless of course, the dearly departed was a social butterfly. In that case, their send-off tends to be a tad less than sombre. People dress up for such send-offs, in their Sunday best too. And forget black, who wants to be caught dead in black at a funeral of a mover and shaker? Speakers at the memorial even share a joke or two, and those in attendance aren’t too encumbered by grief to stifle their laughter.
The atmosphere itself tells you a lot about the dearly departed, the more outgoing they were, the livelier their send-off. If you don’t identify with any of this it’s ok, you’ve just never been to a South African township funeral. These days an ‘after-tears’ mourners gathering is part of the unscripted programme, with alcohol flowing freely to drown mourners’ tears. So, by-and-large, township funerals are becoming jovial affairs.
This hasn’t always been the case the case though. At the turn of the century, only hushed tones were an acceptable means of communication during funeral proceedings. A glaring stare from an old lady two rows away from you at church was enough to remind you that this isn’t a party but a wake. A ringing cellphone during the proceedings was considered an undoubted sign of disrespect for the dearly departed and the bereaved. Not that this has changed lately, but it’s not uncommon to have people leaving a funeral church service to attend to an incessantly ringing (or is vibrating?) cellphone.
I suppose it’s a bit too much to expect people to give up their lives for two hours for a church service for someone who’s no longer here, and they not coming back anytime soon anyway. The older generation saw this last journey as one that could not be compromised, it had to be given the solemn dignity it deserves. One could not carry on as usual. The tone of one’s voice in the week leading up to the funeral could not simply be as one wished. Tradition ruled. More so on the day than any other time.
The bereaved are almost excused from this solemnness. They can walk upright, they can converse almost normally, after all, they have a funeral to organize. Being the bereaved requires two contradictory things from you in a way. Be sombre enough to look like you have indeed lost a loved one but zealous/busy or strong enough to organize a ‘fitting’ send-off for your loved one. Quite a tough balancing act if you have a small family. Neighbours do chip in, if you yourself was neighborly enough in their hour of need. Otherwise you’ll have to contend with preparing a huge feast for a multitude of mourners, with limited hands and sometimes resources.
I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it. Mark Twain
Mind you, a loss in the family does not excuse your family from the judgemental appraisals that normally follow a celebratory occasion, “it was well-organized”, “the food was good”, “terrible coffin, they should have gone for a casket”, “terrible programme director”. Really? I suppose in mourning, as in normal life, you are expected to keep up with the Joneses’ as well as maintain good taste and organizational skills, at your lowest emotional point.
Death has become so common people are finding new ways of keeping track of who is or isn’t mourning with them. Whilst in the past financial contributions made by mourners could be discreetly passed onto the elder in the family “mourning room”, now a book is used to capture who made a contribution or how much, a little black book of sorts in a way. The idea of keeping track of who “mourned with you” is in itself an alien culture, because Ubuntu dictates that when one mourns, we all mourn. Yet, records are kept. Just you wait till you lose someone, I will show you. Maybe not as bizarre as it appears, after all, what has our love for money not affected?
It is not uncommon now to see a member of the bereaved family hogging all the ‘limelight’, if you want to call it that. This person normally looks disheveled, hurried and talks a bit loud, for all mourners to hear how hectic the last couple of days have been. They issue curt instructions to whoever is at the receiving end of their endless calls. It’s not unheard of for mourners to overhear this ‘funeral conductor’ settling inheritance disputes whilst organizing the wake. “That woman will not set her foot here, it’s only my brother’s money she’s after.” Which is to say, with all the joviality and after-parties, drama is never far off the programme. Especially if family relations were not strengthened whilst the departed could still walk and talk.
Bizarre as it might sound, an estranged wife has been known to hijack the corpse from the morgue, and if she does so legally, with a court order, the funeral week could create family drama the likes of which is too much for our normally dour funeral processions. ‘Spectators’ might actually turn up at the funeral in the hope of catching some unpaid-for drama.
Picture this. The family patriarch passes on. The known children of the family discover that there was an unknown branch of the family, with a mother and several grown children, the works. The unknown branch of the family decides they cannot remain unknown any longer because you guessed it, there’s an inheritance at stake. If the unknown mother and children have the means and know-how, they can hijack the funeral preparations via legal means. Mourners have been known to have turned up only to be told the funeral is now 500kms away, where parallel funeral preparations were underway, with the unknown family branch in charge.
The right to settle a deceased’s estate seems to be inextricably linked to who buries the corpse. Where the unknown family and the known family are both legally knowledgeable it’s not uncommon to have the departed kept on ice, no pun intended, until the right to the corpse is sorted out. Undignified as this might sound, the unknown family ends up conducting a ‘closed’ funeral, to the exclusion of the known. To hell with a dignified send-off, the right to the deceased’s estate is so much bigger. Who said money was the root of all kinds of evil again? Ah, the good book.
Mind you, the estate might actually turn out to be a mountain of debt, in which case the known widow is left alone to carry the burden of having married a husband with a roving eye.
Amazing how in the old days these scandals seemed to be kept under wraps, at least until the funeral’s gone past. They just appeared much less frequently than they do now. The moves towards a more open society means the hidden and sometimes ugly truth is aired for all to see. I blame it all on the tabloids, not the happenings, but our getting to know the warts-and-all goings on of all these hard to digest issues. Ironically, African customs point to the mourning period as an open-house period, with the whole house opened to mourners, nothing hidden. The person closest to the departed is normally based in the main house or bedroom for the mourning week, as if to say, ‘see, nothing to hide’.
Today’s open society has brought with it an attitude of ‘out with the old, in with the new’, much to the chagrin of those hankering for the good old days. The after-tears get-together, normally a house or two away from the bereaved family is one result of this ‘in with new’ phenomenon. Ten years ago it was the preserve of the young at heart, now it’s become quite common for the bereaved to actually provide a select few mourners with alcoholic beverages immediately after the wake. Evolution creeps up on society, could it be that South African society is moving towards a more celebratory funeral? Celebratory funeral, an oxymoron?
Whatever turns out to be the case, in the meantime, new expensive outfits, new expensive hairstyles and the more unsavoury figure-hugging mini-dress/skirt seem to be the ‘in-thing’ at township funerals, for now. Perhaps just a fitting reminder to all and sundry that once you depart, you have no control over anything, not who comes to your funeral, not what they will wear, drink, say or do. Once gone, you stay gone.
I suppose you simply have to live the best life you can, and through it hope that once you are gone, your funeral is not remembered for who it attracted, how they were dressed or even more bizarrely(at a party animal’s or gangster’s funerals), if any twerking happened at the gravesite.