New ways: The coffin of an MK soldier is carried into a hall at Freedom Park where his remains are to be given to his family. In the past, the bodies of dead combatants were simply hidden, says the writer. Picture: Phill Magakoe

The 19th-century amaXhosa soldier Makhanda Gwala, known as Makana Nxele, is to be repatriated after his bones lay on Robben Island where he died almost 200 years ago.

And Advocate Sonwabile Mangcotywa, chief executive of the National Heritage Council, a government institution that is responsible for the preservation of the country’s heritage, has been quoted as saying: “His spiritual repatriation will bring closure to the pain his family and community went through for more than 193 years.”

Maybe it is important to look at the definition of the word “heritage” when one talks about this matter. According to the University of Massachusetts’s Centre for Heritage & Society, “heritage is the full range of our inherited traditions, monuments, objects, and culture. Most important, it is the range of contemporary activities, meanings, and behaviours that we draw from them”.

“Heritage includes, but is much more than, preserving, excavating, displaying, or restoring a collection of old things.

“It is both tangible and intangible, in the sense that ideas and memories – of songs, recipes, language, dances, and many other elements of who we are and how we identify ourselves – are as important as historical buildings and archaeological sites.”

When I attempted to look up the definition of the word “heritage” as defined by South Africans on the internet, a flood of definitions confronted me. Sadly, most of these showed that Heritage Day in South Africa has been declared or embraced by our government and many others as a “National Braai Day” or “Braai4Heritage”.

Indeed Credo Mutwa was right when he said that Africa is a downtrodden casualty of history, forever dependent on her former oppressors.

But on the subject of Makhanda, we are confronted with heritage of a completely different kind. The Daily Dispatch wrote recently that “traditional rituals would be performed on Robben Island (where) traditional healers would talk to the ancestors from where he launched his boat asking for the release of his spirit”.

I think it might indeed be a very important thing to do for the family to feel that their ascendant and his involvement in the frontier wars is still recognised. These wars were fought alongside so many African heroes and heroines, most of whom will forever go unsung – which indeed is what ordinarily happens in a selfless struggle.

But as a student of oral history, my worry with these modern post-apartheid South Africa “repatriations” is that most of them are not in line with the mortuary customs of abantu.

In isiXhosa the old saying goes “ingcwaba lendoda lisecaleni kwendlela”.

Loosely translated, it means a man is buried wherever he may fall. This is totally unquestionable in the case of battle, because the ancestors would have been notified of war, asked for protection and to deliver victory as well as protect the souls of those whose lives would be sacrificed by the war or battle.

We know that in those days, the grave did not even exist as it does today in the context of war, hence the word “isifihlo” meaning “funeral”, being derived from the word “ukufihla” meaning “to hide”.

Bodies of dead combatants were simply hidden in the shrubs – there was no time to dig. They were simply hidden away to avoid body mutilations where people created charms that would be used in a future battle against the dead’s own people. Wild animals would scavenge upon dead bodies and that was a simple natural process.

When the family of the deceased wanted to bring back the spirit of the dead there was a simple ritual where traditional beer, a slaughtered cow and the words of the elders of the family – mediating between the ancestors and the living – were the main feature.

There was no need for “amagqirha”, the diviners or traditional doctors. In fact today the diviners’ scope of work seems to have widened to a point that Africans in South Africa seem to be dysfunctional without the involvement of a diviner.

A diviner or igqirha was only consulted when people or a person wanted to know about something that was totally unknown and strange.

These diviners have always been blessed with the powers to foresee and to look deep into the past beyond normal human memory.

I must hasten to say that there were few of them, not as fashionable as today. People travelled long distances to get to a diviner, a true diviner – not the many chance-takers we see today.

A diviner generally told the truth and did not create things that were not there.

For instance if you went to a diviner and asked him or her to assist you to repatriate your ascendant’s soul, such as this one of Makhanda, the diviners of old would refuse.

They would say: “You know what you are supposed to do – go ahead and do it with the leadership of your elders, it does not need special powers, talk to your ancestors.”

My grandfather once told me a story about his uncle (uTatomncinci wakhe) named Namba who had a strange hiccup (ithwabe) that lasted for weeks, making him struggle to eat and drink at times.

This was some time in the 1890s (about 120 or so years ago).

He says a group of men were sent to consult a diviner, and when they got to the diviner they were told: “uNamba uyayazi lento.”

Again, loosely translated, this means: “He knows what is causing this,” and the diviner told him to “go and do it”.

The men left and once out of sight of the diviner, they asked Namba, and he told them: “uTata ufuna lankunzi yam yenkomo,” meaning: “My late father wants me to slaughter him my favourite bull.”

The diviner had refused payment of any form, and wanted no involvement in such a simple family matter that had been communicated a number of times to Namba via dreams.

They went back home and the bull was slaughtered. The hiccup never returned. He passed on circa 1962, at the age of 100.

Today I see a very big problem, because Africans in South Africa seem to be putting their lives solely in the hands of diviners, absolving themselves of any responsibility to think, to recall their traditions, to consult their elders, thereby destroying the wisdom of the elders within their families, as well as dangerously introducing rituals, in some cases, that are new to the family.

Being a diviner today is about status and money – this is why you will see a diviner agreeing to do anything you ask.

Maybe we need to start drawing up a diviners’ handbook in order to guide the young, as well as for posterity.

I am worried about this because the National Heritage Council could easily be seen to be funding projects that are counter-productive to the very foundations of the heritage of the African people in South Africa.

I wish to call on all oral historians to speak out about this distortion and not to be afraid of being labelled.

Our silence will haunt us for generations to come.