/ 30 June 2022

In the black void of missing bodies

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We are buried in the earth. But sometimes, these burials are unintentional. Five-year-old Khayalethu Magadla, whose body has been missing for two weeks since plunging into a sewer manhole, is the latest example of these involuntary deaths and burials. 

Pretty Nkambule, Solomon Nyirenda and Yvonne Mnisi were swallowed by the earth on Lily Mine when the container they were working in collapsed into a sinkhole in February 2016. They have been gone for six years. 

As a child raised in the 1980s mining labour reserve of emaMpondweni, I knew many families whose fathers and sons had been buried in landfalls in the country’s far flung mines. Since the black void imprisons bodies, we’ve never had funerals for some of them.

Most of us who live on the coast know someone who was swallowed by the Indian Ocean. And if we follow continental news, we see the perverse travesty of thousands of Africans drowning in the Mediterranean while embarking on desperate crossings to their European neighbours. We remember a time when the Europeans marched into African countries with the swagger of landlords. Now, we see them shut us out. 

Buffeted by powerful crosscurrents of global racial capitalism, our government’s kleptomania, deeply entrenched corruption, and economies of abandonment, as Africans, we are rendered powerless against ceaseless and avoidable black death. 

At best, our role might be an ethical witnessing that insists on indexing, naming and archiving the lives we lose. These small acts of witnessing mark the black dead as both memorable and mournable — as people who leave a void in their families and communities. To disappear into a manhole is not to evaporate from memory.  

The condition of surplus lives is frequent death. To be black and working class is to be adjacent to death. Little white boys do not fall into manholes while playing close to home. They do not swim in the toxins of disused mine dumps. Black working classes die at play, at work and in desperate attempts to flee their own cannibalistic governments. 

Khayalethu Magadla was one week shy of his sixth birthday when he fell into the city’s sewage highway. One minute he was at play in  a park in Dlamini, Soweto,with his brother and friends and then, he disappeared into the dark tunnels that bear the city’s excrement.

From the location of the manhole where he disappeared, it is approximately 13km to the sh***y junction where the city’s sewer tunnels congregate. The City of Johannesburg has made a big show of attempting to find little Khayalethu’s body. They have combed the sewage, first in the attempt to rescue him and then, when hope faded, to find his body.

While we should commend the ordinary workers who have spent almost two weeks sifting through excrement, we should not lose sight of the city’s failings. 

To ethically witness Magadla’s death is to problematise the fact that people live so close to major sewage highways where little boys vanish while at play. We should demur when the blame is deferred to faceless thieves who steal manholes for their steel. What economy and legislative framework enable a thriving trade in copper and recycled steel? Why is it normal for the governing political party to convene for a provincial elective congress when a little boy’s body is trapped in the sewage just a few kilometres away? 

To ethically witness is to imagine the anguish of Khayalethu’s mother and father, and his brother’s unwarranted guilt. To imagine the boy’s confusion turn into horror. It is to feel the horror turning into desperation. To visualise how he gasped for breath while trying not to ingest waste water. And then, we must think of how his lungs were likely overwhelmed before his lifeless body gave in to the flowing sewage. 

This was a drowning. We must dare to envisage his body caught somewhere in the long river of sewage or buffeted about like nameless debris. We must feel the searing rage of the compounding losses onto which Khayalethu Magadla adds. This is what Katherine McKittrick terms the mathematics of black life. Compounding death.  

Khayalethu’s unaccounted for disappearance into our city’s sewage works compels one to recall other unaccounted for disappearances. We must return to the scene of subjection that is Lily Mine in Barberton, Mpumalanga, where Pretty Nkambule, Solomon Nyirenda and Yvonne Mnisi were swallowed by a sinkhole. One moment they were alive and the next, they had vanished without a trace. 

When Nkambule was born, she was so beautiful that those who beheld her named her Pretty. We know that she vanished into a sinkhole, but we must contend with the humaning void that she leaves in those who love her. Yvonne Mnisi’s mother is one of many people who convened in a melancholic gathering to mark 1 000 days of her daughter’s disappearance. Her grief knows no closure. It is a black void filled with a litany of questions. 

Gwede Mantashe, the minister of minerals and energy, refuses to answer the questions asked by Mnisi’s mother. He will not lend the resources of the state — the people — to find the bodies of the three people who vanished on what should have been a normal February day. 

Mining is to disturb the earth. It is how desperate Africans make a living. Mining is sanctioned, legislated and encouraged by the state. In fact, Xolobeni, where the government wants to mine on the Wild Coast, illustrates that the government insists on mining land even when inhabitants refuse. 

Beckoned by the shine of titanium, the minister and his predecessors have made more trips to Xolobeni than they have to Barberton where they are called to respond to the questions of grieving families. 

Mantashe, who also doubles as the chairperson of the governing party, is an example of an uncaring state that refuses to ethically witness black death. Government holds the keys to closure for the Barberton three whose bodies remain unaccounted for. Instead of care, government is driven by an unrelenting greed that sees it align with capital rather than the communities it is meant to serve. 

In the mathematics of greed, capital pays more than voting communities. In the mathematics of black abandonment, it is better not to retrieve the container that bears the closure that families seek. For Mantashe, it is tolerable for the grieving parents to keen into the black void of the gaping sinkhole.  

To ethically witness is to remember that there are 87 bodies that disappeared in the last iteration of the KwaZulu-Natal floods. This recollection should tug at our conscience and wrench the feeling part of the gut in our bellies. Perhaps it is to empathically feel iinimba — isiXhosa for the birth pains of a mother whenever she feels loss. The mathematics of black death tells us that 87 people are still missing months after the floods. 

What does pausing in order to imagine the mothers’, partners’, children’s, grandparents’ and neighbours’ stricken faces, do to us? To envision the pain of unaccounted for death is to galvanise us into feeling beings. In moments of quiet, we have to wonder what fills the days of a grandmother who searches for her grandson. 

Does she wander along the gorges and streams looking out for a red jacket that he last wore before the flood waters wrenched him away from her? Will the jacket lead her to his bloated body? In her weary sleepless hours, what thoughts clamour in her mind? 

To sit with these questions is not to succumb to grief or to invite a pity party. It is a call to ethically witness. To mark the moments when human beings are taken from us by negligence, greed, and disasters. To insist on bodies when they are not forthcoming. To take a full measure of what we lose requires pause in order to recognise death when our governments refuse. 

If we do not mark our losses we run the risk of normalising black death and succumbing to the mathematics of racial capital that takes relentlessly without giving. 

To reckon with our dead is to care for them, to imbue the disappeared with memory, to tend to their dreams and to witness that something has happened. A child with a toothless gap has gone with the sewage, the mine has swallowed people in the prime of life, the floods have vanished with mournable bodies, and the Mediterranean Sea has enveloped boatfuls of Africans. We tend to their memories and the void they leave behind. 

Hugo ka Canham is an associate professor of psychology at a Johannesburg university. He writes in his personal capacity.

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