Guiding Madiba’s spirit home

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Madiba's grandson, Mandla Mandela. Photo: Yves Herman

Durban - Each time the body of Nelson Mandela is moved, the oldest male descendant from his family will, as part of custom, explain to him what is happening so that his spirit “does not wander”.

That duty is expected to be assigned to his grandson, Mandla Mandela.

The Xhosa custom was not different to that practised by Zulus, said Nkosi Phathekile Holomisa, president of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa and chief of the AmaGebe Tribe in Eastern Cape.

Holomisa said the day Mandela passed on, an elder from the family would have spoken to him before his body was removed from his home.

“It (would have been) explained to him that he was no longer alive and that he was going to be moved away from the house and also told of his next destination, which was in this case the mortuary,” he said. “On arrival, it (would have been) explained to him what he was doing there.”

Holomisa, who is the chairman of the Joint Constitutional Review Committee - a parliamentary body - said Mandela, whose body would be lying in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria from Wednesday, would have also been told of this before his body left the mortuary.

“When the destination is reached, he will again be told. As part of the custom, his body will also have to be taken past his other homes in Johannesburg,” he said. “When he is at the airport en route to Qunu, he will be informed.”

Holomisa said Mandela would be taken to his birth home in Mvezo where an elder would speak to him. From there the body would go to the Mqhekezweni Great Place, the royal residence, where he would also be spoken to by an elder before being taken to his final resting place in Qunu.

“If there is a river that has to be crossed, he will be told. This has to be done so that his spirit does not wander. If it’s not done, his spirit may after some time trouble some of the relatives,” he said.

Until his burial, Mandela would have only male elders around his body and they would be the only ones allowed to communicate with him, Holomisa said.

After a year, Holomisa said an izila, a cleansing ceremony, would be held where an ox would be slaughtered.

“This is the animal that we believe will take him to the ancestors. It will have to be slaughtered and eaten in one day,” he said.

Jabulani Maphalala, a retired University of Zululand history professor and expert on Zulu culture, said he did not expect the rituals conducted by the Thembu clan to be too different from those carried out by the Zulus. Madiba belonged to the Thembu clan.

“There are many similarities mainly because the Thembus, led by their king Ngoza, migrated from the Zulu kingdom (about a century ago). You still find many Thembus in Msinga, for example,” he said.

Maphalala explained that when a Zulu man died, a series of rituals had to be performed to ensure a smooth transition to the realm of the ancestors.

This included the ritual of preparing the body for burial, which had to happen soon after the person had died. This would include closing the person’s eyes and preparing the body in the position in which it would be buried.

“All this needs to happen when the body is warm. A male person would, in the olden days, be made to sit in a squatting position because that is the position in which a person would be buried facing east,” he said. “But now it is different because there are coffins.”

Maphalala said that Africans did not believe that the person died “only to rise later”, as some other religions preached, but that they were merely “sleeping” and their souls were being transported to the land of the ancestors.

“That is why communicating with them still has to happen.”

When the body had to be transported anywhere, the branch of the Buffalo thorn tree (known as ihlahla or umphafa) had to be used as that was said to capture the dead person’s spirit.

He said the belief was that the spirit clung to the thorny tree, and no other tree may be used for this purpose. Maphalala explained that it was normally the deceased’s oldest male descendant who had to lead such a process of talking to the dead person.

Whoever carried the branch had to talk to the deceased person and nobody else and inform that person of every step of the journey. “For example if the body is transported by car and you stop at a garage to fill up with petrol you have to inform the deceased,” he said.

For a funeral, a cow would be slaughtered but this was done not to provide a feast but for the animal’s hide which was used to wrap the body.

“The person is normally buried with his own calabash so when he meets his ancestors he can partake in whatever they are eating,” Maphalala said. “What he would not be buried with are weapons. This is because there is a fear of them being used to start wars in the land of the ancestors.”

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