Those who attack funerals self-identify as pariahs

“Police fired tear gas today at the funeral of a suspected African National Congress guerilla and snatched the flag of the outlawed group from his coffin. The riot squad moved in after mourners at the funeral for 22-year-old Ashley Kriel broke government restrictions that limited the congregation to 800, barred political speeches and outlawed the display of banners such as the ANC flag.” — AP, 1987

“Israeli forces have attacked a funeral procession for a Palestinian American journalist shot dead this week, kicking and hitting people with batons and causing mourners carrying her coffin to lose balance and drop it to the ground … Israel forbids public displays of Palestinian flags.” — The Guardian, 2022

Part of the code of ethics that defines humanity, regardless of our cultures, the rituals we practise or our spiritual beliefs, is the dignity we afford the dead, and the sanctity of the processes of the passage of their mortal remains.

It is a code written and honed over millennia. It didn’t use to be uncommon for victorious soldiers to desecrate the bodies of vanquished opponents; today such practices are almost universally condemned. Even in the heat of hideous war, space is created to remove bodies from the field.

It is a code that underscores the mystery of life and death, that connects our species and common vulnerabilities. Part of the web of human interconnectedness and interdependence, of ubuntu, that exists above greed, intolerance, consumptiveness and environmental devastation.

A web that binds what Archbishop Tutu described as the human family, or God’s family.

Those who break the code, who attack mourners at funerals, who prioritise political or economic objectives over considerations of humanness and human rights, self-identify as pariahs.

What they think is a demonstration of strength and invulnerability is in fact a demonstration of weakness and loss of integrity. They cast themselves out, denying themselves a seat at the family table.

When we saw television footage last week of Israeli policemen wading into pall bearers carrying the coffin of murdered journalist Shireen Abu Akleh outside a Jerusalem church we felt a familiar sense of revulsion and loss. It was a scene that looked made in apartheid South Africa.

In South Africa, the funerals of slain activists became sites for a rolling cycle of violence. Members of the security forces routinely antagonised and clashed with mourners and activists, regularly resulting in more funerals being held the following weekend. A cycle of violence and hatred — and denial of common humanity — constantly refuelling itself.

Tutu presided at many such funerals. He knew the taste of teargas and despair. Leah Tutu understood the terrain well, too. In 1977, she was among a group of women sjambokked by police, forced off buses and prevented from attending the funeral of Steve Biko in the Eastern Cape, where the then-Bishop Tutu preached.

One of the speakers at the funeral, Dr Nthato Motlana, who flew from Johannesburg after being prevented from travelling by road, described the scene of Leah Tutu’s assault. He reported watching police haul mourners off buses in Soweto and assault them with truncheons. According to author Hilda Bernstein’s account: “The physician said he had treated 30 of the mourners, some for fractured skulls, and said he had witnesses who would testify that a number of young women were raped.”

Yet Tutu described himself as a prisoner of hope. Challenged to defend this position in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on US civilians, he spoke of people’s yearning for more compassionate, human-centric leadership.

In the past, humans equated leadership to earthly power. Those who commanded the biggest armies, most destructive weapons and largest bank accounts were generally the ones identified as leaders.

But there were signs that this was changing. How else could you account for people’s reverence for such figures as Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela, he asked?

The greatest victims of violence are the perpetrators, themselves, he said. When we violate the rights and dignity of others, we also violate ourselves.

Technology has shrunk the world into what we describe as a global village when it suits our geo-political and economic agendas. Long before Covid-19 it was said that when America sneezes the world catches a cold. The truth in the global village, we now know, is that we all depend on one another covering our mouths when we sneeze.

What happens in Israel and Palestine does not affect Israelis and Palestinians, alone. It fuels a global fault-line of mistrust, suspicion, intolerance and violence. After all, as the archbishop said, what members of the Abrahamic faiths describe as the Holy Land is no ordinary patch of ground.

If we are to co-exist peacefully in the global village we need a cohort of leaders who comprehend our interdependence, whether we are Russian or Ukrainian, Jewish or Muslim, African or European,

Black or white, women or men. 

As South Africa’s former Chief Rabbi, Cyril Harris, reportedly explained to a group of Jewry in Johannesburg in 1995, in the early days of South Africa’s freedom, “Some of you might say, why should we help the schvartzes (blacks) when they are killing us with all the violence, all the car-jackings and muggings and murders. Well that’s equivalent to anti-Semitism. It’s like the Christian who was swindled once by a Jew and now says all Jews are ganovim (crooks).”

There is an important role in the village for South African leadership.

Despite having shot itself in the foot multiple times in the 28 years of freedom to date, enabling cultures of corruption and mismanagement and an environment of deepening inequality, the example South Africa set through its relatively peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy remains the global dispute resolution gold standard.

Because of South Africa’s experience, it has a hard-earned voice in the village choir of nations. It is a voice of reason and morality. A voice that stridently demands a cessation of hostilities and embrace of negotiation, wherever conflict arises. A voice that recognises that there must be seats at the table for all, underdogs included.

If South Africa, the world champions of institutionalised racism could unstitch apartheid, then peace for citizens of Israel and Palestine is possible. But to achieve it requires leaders able to recognise and acknowledge their opponents as fellow human beings.

Leaders who understand the consequences of attacking funeral corteges, not only for those who are assaulted but also for themselves and their people. Leaders who don’t want their nations to be regarded as the smelliest skunks in the world.

Shireen Abu-Akleh was a US citizen and journalist reporting from Palestine. She happened to be Christian. She was murdered on 11 May 2022, evidently by Israeli security forces. Video footage of the pall-bearers carrying her coffin being attacked by Israeli police was widely circulated on social media.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Niclas Kjellström-Matseke
Niclas Kjellström-Matseke is a Swedish-South African business leader

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