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Mail & Guardian September 24 to 30 2010 27


From left: Pastor Simon Hlongwane exhorts people to remember the dead. Preparations for the feast continue through the night. And dressed for the occasion. Photos: Oupa Nkosi

Unveiling the way to my father

Oupa Nkosi goes to the Free State for the unveiling of his grandparents’ tombstones — and finds the path back to his father’s grave


’ve always hated the fact that whenever I visit my father’s grave, I get lost, or at least struggle to find it. My father died of diabetes in 2006 and was buried in Avalon Cemetery in Chiawelo, Soweto. Avalon is almost at capacity now. It is crowded with graves and there’s hardly an empty space. It’s not easy to find the grave of a loved one, especially if it is not well marked. It was of my father I thought when Pastor Simon Mphikeleni Hlongwane spoke at the tombstone unveiling ceremony of my late grandparents in the Free State in August. “One day, you will be asked by your kids, grandchildren or great-grandchildren about where your parents are buried. And it won’t be nice if you can’t even show them where they are because you don’t know,” warned Hlongwane. “Bazalwane [Christians], it is time that we honour our loved ones.” We arrived in Zenzeleni township, where most of my family now lives, in the early afternoon. It is an informal settlement without electricity and just a few communal taps that supply about 250 homes. Here, life is basic and stays close to the traditional ways. Soon after our arrival, a feisty cow was brought to the family home by my two uncles. They had had to collect it themselves because a farmer hadn’t kept his promise to deliver it first thing in the morning. Traditionally, an elder in the family must talk to the ancestors about the sacrifice about to take place and the intended ceremony. My mother, the second oldest in the family, spoke softly, begging our ancestors to calm the unruly animal. But it gave us a tough time before it ultimately surrendered. My uncle was given the honour of taking it down. But he was carefully supervised by other men in the family who thought they could do a much better job — they shouted their advice from the sidelines. The children gathered to watch with curiosity from a distance at how adults communicated with knives during the slaughter.

We had to kill the animal before sunset because everyone, including the ancestors, should be able to see the process, otherwise the ancestors would not welcome or accept it. When the deed was done, women peeled the onions and tomatoes, cooked and cleaned the intestines, prepared tea and made sure that the children were looked after, while the men braaied the meat for dinner. Soon, the light was no more. But preparations continued throughout the night by candlelight. At about 11pm, different church groups from the area began to arrive. They sang, danced, prayed, clapped hands and beat the drums. The sound didn’t stop until early morning. By then it was cold and I was exhausted. I snuck out from the church service and slept in a car while children dozed comfortably in their beds. A few hours later, I was woken up by the sound of a drum. I knew then it was time to walk up to the cemetery where the unveiling would take place before sunrise. Hlongwane had buried both of my grandparents — my grandmother in 1997 and my grandfather in 2005 — and he made sure that he attended the unveiling ceremony. “I would not miss it for the world,” he told the group. “I was the one who buried both of them and I’m the one who will unveil their tombstones.” Everyone there knew the history — he became a pastor while drinking with my grandparents on a nearby farm sometime in 1992. They had sung, danced and prayed while enjoying themselves. All of a sudden my grandfather stood up and declared: “Next week we will start a church service.” Hlongwane has been the local pastor ever since. First he unveiled my grandfather’s tombstone, Katoor Tsotetsi (19302005), and then my grandmother’s, Ntsekiseng Tsotesti (1926-1997). Both grey tombstones had been cemented into place. A river of little white stones ran past the head of the tombstones. Family members took turns to remove pieces of white cloth that covered the headstones and proudly told the gathering something about my grandparents.

A proper resting place: The tombstone is uncovered while aspects of the deceased’s life are recounted

Proud procession: Family and friends make their way to the cemetery for the unveiling They were both farm labourers and didn’t go to school. They had 13 children and while some of them had formal schooling not one matriculated. They were grounded, unselfish and believed in family values. “Both my parents were very strict but they showed us the difference between right and wrong,” my now 62-year-old mother said. My grandmother had a wonderful sense of humour and the most adorable laughter. In his retirement, my grandfather, skinny, tall and with a dark complexion, spent his time hunting. He would come home with hares, snakes and frogs for us to eat in the evening while we sat around the fire. “I feel happy that things have gone well as planned,” said one of my uncles as we headed home from the cemetery.

When we arrived, food was served to about 200 people. Plates were filled with beetroot, green salad, pap, rice, carrots, peas, baked beans and meat. By then the sun was blazing and by 9am it was over. Those who stayed behind were thirsty for traditional beer. “We are very thankful to our uncles and aunts for what they have done,” said a cousin about the family members who bought the tombstones that properly mark my grandparents’ resting place, as she sat in the shade of a nearby shack. “May God bless them so they can continue doing great things in life.” I, of course, came back to my father, William Dingaan Nkosi. He was a respected man in our community, a bus driver who managed to finish his schooling through correspondence

classes. He never fought with anyone, was devoted to his family and worked to put a roof over our heads and food on the table. He was proud of his six children and all, except for my sister Thembeni Nkosi, who died in 2004 at the age of 31, finished matric. As I drove back to Johannesburg, I thought about the coming year. I thought about how, next year, I wouldn’t get lost when looking for my father or my sister in Avalon cemetery. By then, they too will have a proper resting place, dignified and proud and easy to find. That will make me a very happy man. And their souls will rest in peace. l For an audio slideshow of the event go to


From left: Pastor Simon Hlongwane exhorts people to remember the dead. Preparations for the feast continue through the night. And dressed fo...