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Cultural, religious or heritage significance of graveyards

A boy walks past a cemetery in Soshanguve. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

A boy walks past a cemetery in Soshanguve. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 5, 2022


Shalate Davhana and Malesela Maubane

Pretoria - Graveyards and tombstones have different importance to different people within a cultural, religious or heritage context.

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The observation is that many people visit graveyards to either perform cultural or religious rituals, while graves can also be a source of heritage.

Several graveyards in South Africa have become crime hot spots, making it almost impossible for families to visit the resting place of their loved ones. Unsuspecting visitors often face the potential of being mugged by loitering criminals.

Families therefore prefer visiting graveyards over weekends when there is activity arising from various burial ceremonies.

Criminal activities have ravaged the palisade fences of graveyards in townships such as Soshanguve, north of Pretoria, as the sale of scrap metal has seemingly become a quick way to survive hunger or, as community members allege, the financial means for nyaope (a popular street drug made from an assortment of substances) addicts.

The vandalism or stealing of fencing at gravesites around the country is widely reported.

As one drives or walks past the Block P cemetery, in the heart of Soshanguve, the strikingly shocking sight of dilapidated tombs signals a neglect of our cultural heritage.

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Overgrown grass and unfenced cemeteries are a common sight. Several kilometres further along Ruth First Road, there is a fairly new gravesite. Though the authorities opted for concrete palisade fencing, for obvious reasons, residents have removed some of the blocks for easy access from the main road during busy burial weekends.

Besides this being an eyesore and the close relationship she had with her father, Shalate Davhana, a native of Soshanguve, has only visited her father’s grave once in the two years since his passing and has difficulty visiting doing that again. The entrance of the cemetery, once a beautiful sight, has some roof-tiles missing apparently from theft and the wooden frames are now exposed.

In respect of performing cultural rituals and connecting with ancestors, one can ask if the reason people do these rituals is a case of “A man who tries to live without his ancestors is like a tree struggling without roots, and that a man who is ignored by his ancestors is a disgrace in the eyes of the gods”, as Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa wrote in his 1964 book, Indaba, My Children. The book is a collection of African tribal history, legends, customs, and religious beliefs.

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With the Easter weekend, regarding religion, the Christian community commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In trying to contexualise the resurrection and its commemoration, it might not be far off quoting from the Bible scriptures, Philippians 3:10: “I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”

It was during the same weekend that Jesus’ friends could not find his body in the tomb on resurrection Sunday as they went to anoint his body. Although the tomb signifies the final deportation from life, it is a place where one can reminisce about the life of departed loved ones, as Jesus was quoted as saying in John 11:25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Graves also form part of cultural heritage, and as many people, especially Africans, were nomadic in the past, tombs can help them trace their movements and settlements.

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Malesela Maubane, a Mohlonong village, Ga-Mashashane area native, was able to trace his paternal third great grandparents, Lekgatla and Petlwane’s resting place and cradle to “Thabaneng ya dinoko”, just off the D19 Matlala road, around Ga-Magongwa, Lepotlako and Waschbank villages in the Maraba area, Limpopo province.

Trying to solve a 63-year mystery of the whereabouts of his paternal grand uncle, Charles “Charlie” Maubane’s final resting place, the Polokwane Municipality Cemeteries officials were helpful in leading him to Grave #132 at the New Look burial grounds, opposite the Polokwane bus terminus along the Nelson Mandela Drive to Seshego, thus completing a family history spanning five generations.

Public relations and communication management executive Thabisile Phumo’s Facebook post on a mission she undertook with a friend, on cultural practices around funerals, was quite informative. On the issue of tombstones, she wrote this noteworthy statement: “Soil will in time get eroded. A tombstone is about immortalising the names in your lineage.”

While the cultural heritage significance of graves and gravestones is often underplayed, elsewhere on the continent perhaps one can look at the tourism attraction generated by the ancient Egyptian pyramids and tombs.

The unveiling of the burial and memorial site of the late former regent chieftainess, Mme Makwena Matlala, on the grounds of Bakone ba Ga-Matlala a thaba Traditional Authority in 2015, through a partnership between the national Department of Sport, Arts and Culture, and the South African Heritage Resources Agency, goes a long way in preserving cultural heritage.

The defacing or vandalism of burial and memorial sites of ordinary South Africans and prominent people, such as the statue of the late anti-apartheid activist Nokuthula Simelane; the tombstone of late SACP leader and Umkhonto we Sizwe chief of staff, Chris Hani; journalist and prolific author, Nat Nakasa; former Orlando Pirates goalkeeper and captain, Senzo Meyiwa; and recently that of the late president of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’ Association (MKMVA), Kebby Maphatsoe, is saddening.

Irrespective of whether those of us who will be visiting the graves of our departed beloved for religious or cultural reasons, just to put on flowers or keep them clean as heritage sites, Mutwa reminds us that, “Another significant difference: all other religions seem to change from time to time to suit the purposes of communities according to their way of life, standard of development, degree of civilisation or changed outlook in terms of science to world affairs”.

After all, culture is dynamic, and as such changes in cultural practices around funerals and tombstones are not unlikely.

The preservation of burial sites for either religious, cultural or heritage purposes is a responsibility of all sectors of society. When all is said and done, the question remains whether graveyards are still sacred places and heritage sites, or have they become a haven for criminals?

* Davhana is a Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) alumna and a MancosaA MPA candidate while Maubane is director of Oo Mokgatla Media, former president of the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa (PRISA) and a social commentator. They both write in their personal capacities.

Pretoria News