Like a lot of South Africans, I’ve been blessed with a huge extended family. While we have been great at bonding over milestones like birthdays — especially 21sts — we have had more practice at marking off deaths.
Overwhelmingly, ever since the passing of my grandmother in the mid-1980s, I associate my paternal grandfather’s house with the leaden rituals of burial; sunken sockets staring out of utilitarian coffins, frowning aunts bent over pots of funeral food and haunting vigils of raising the spirit of the departed.
So used were we to bonding over loss that the feeling was indistinguishable to the one time my extended family met to introduce my sister and me to a long-unknown family member.
Death stalks you with quotidian steadfastness if you are black. Thinking back to the 1990s, I can count several uncles — healthy, rambunctious men, pillars of the household — laid to waste by “the big disease with the small acronym”.
From that period on, I can count several cousins snatched away by the violence that is, seemingly, a requisite ingredient of township life. For those of us who remain alive, dysfunction deadens us in unspeakable ways.
As cousins, we have our bonding rituals, extreme and possibly sociopathic, for we know not when we might meet again. For the older generations of the family, with each death the pecking order is scrambled, creating new alliances and power blocs. With every subsequent loss worth more than its pound of flesh, it is only the pariahs who are left unscathed.
While health concerns have kept me away from two Covid-era funerals, missing the sombre occasions that glued the family together, in the process I have come adrift from myself. Sensation to my limbs and soul has yet to return.
Our Ghosts Were Once People: Stories on Death and Dying (Jonathan Ball), edited by Bongani Kona, allows us to wallow in the perspectives of others as a way of finding ourselves in the grief accumulated over the past two years. Lidudumalingani’s essay, The Grief of Strangers, captures his mother in an important ritual of connecting to the pain of others through the act of listening to the uMhlobo weNene show Imiphanga.
In the vivid piece, Lidudumalingani captures how death, stripped of the macabre, can sometimes bring the best out of people.
In the images of Thato Monare, titled Kukithi La: This House is Not For Sale, we see how inheritance, in the framework of apartheid’s housing policies and the inaccesibility of conveyancing services, can leave heirs scratching at each other to the bitter end. In some way, the photo essay is a grim picture of the continuum of apartheid’s logic; which continues to nullify the humanity of its victims, rendering them dead.
Lidudumalingani and Monare do not think alone. But together with Mapule Mohulatsi, Zuko Zikalala and Thobile Ndimande (who pay loving tribute to “the master of anecdotes”, Professor Bheki Peterson) and Imraan Coovadia (who ponders the role of poison in the South African body politic). Together, they prop up an edition that ponders the sting and the many faces of death.