Invented digital traditions

  • Posted on June 4, 2014

Every weekend in townships sees the death of a member of someone’s family due to natural causes, the HIV-Aids pandemic, violent crimes and road accidents. This has increased the role of funeral parlours in township burials, making them a lucrative business. Funeral parlours have entrenched burial traditions with the provision of burial utensils, food and financial schemes. Families and society have adapted to this change. The dress code in township funerals is not so modest after all; salads are now part of the main meal and desserts are now part of the menu. Most significant for this piece is the use of video recorders in memorial services and burials sites by some families in townships.

The video recording of funerals was common practice during the apartheid era. Burials of political activists were digitally captured for the world to see the plight of segregation and the violence suffered at the hands of the regime. One such recorded moment that comes to mind vividly, is the burial ceremony of Chris Hani in April, 1993. Before he was laid to rest at the Thomas Nkobi Memorial Park Cemetery in Boskburg, Johannesburg, Mkhonto weSizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), marched in presence of hundreds of people who had come to witness the burial of the chief of staff of the cadre and a leader of the South African Communist Party.

The state of melancholy was captured on video as the MK members, the Hani family and hundreds of people sang: ‘‘Hamba kahle Mkhonto, weMkhonto, Mkhonto weSizwe. Thina sizowabulala wona lamaBhunu’’. Although I was still young at the time, I could read the anger and sadness on the faces of my elderly. The video footage that was broadcasted on the then CCV channel brought the reality of Hani’s death to our homes, but also exposed the wounds of the grieving black nation to the world.

Two decades later, the same practice of videoed burials has remained and increased. Of late, the world witnessed the memorial ceremony of the former president Nelson Mandela and later his body taken to Qunu in the Eastern Cape where he was buried in a private ceremony. A similar militaristic performance to that displayed during Hani’s burial service was demonstrated during the repatriation of Mandela’s body.

What is striking is that unlike the apartheid and the post-apartheid era in which only the funerals of the well renowned, political activists, as well as prominent members of the society were recorded, funerals of commoners are increasingly being videoed. In the past, video recorders have been essential gadgets used to document parties and weddings but not funerals as much. The practice of recording funerals is becoming common particularly in townships such as Soshanguve, Attrageville, Mamelodi and Soweto.

Inquisitively, I marvelled at who decides within families whether the funeral will be videorised or not. What is the symbolic meaning of recording a funeral? Where is the video record kept, and by whom? Who watches the video and for what purpose? And most significantly, why is this becoming common practise in townships?

In response to some of these questions, Tshepo, who grew up in the townships of Johannesburg replied in an informal discussion: ‘My grandmother has kept such a video record. She watches it with us sometimes. Although it triggers sad emotions, she seems to also watch it for the purpose of reflecting on the service- spotting who attended, who didn’t and at times, who wore which outfit’.

Kgaugelo, who was born and raised in Soshanguve, offered another perspective when she said: ‘The video in my family was kept for providing closure. It is difficult to believe that someone passed away if you did not attend their funeral. However, once you have seen the video you believe it.’

Although there are divergent responses to why families have embraced the digital tradition of recording funerals- a tradition which seems to have its roots in apartheid South Africa – it is clear that this is increasingly becoming an accepted practice in some townships. The questions that then come to mind are whether we are tapping into a new archive? Moreover, is there correlation between this practice and the death of thousands of South Africans who died during the struggle unidentified, buried as paupers by the apartheid regime? If so, could the practice of videosing funerals be an act of restoring pride to the African corpse that was once treated with indignity? Or is this perhaps simply what may be regarded as part of the culture of ‘conspicuous consumption’?

In the mist of these questions and the possible answers, it remains a challenge for researchers and for outsiders to demystify the practise of recording funerals. Coupled with this challenge, is the task of identifying the time period in which this practice began and spread. Of interest would also be to determine at what point does this cease being an elitist tradition and spreads across the townships? Intertwined with this question, is why this practice has spread to particular townships and not others? What is unique about the history and the context of those townships which allows for the advancement of such practices? Most significantly, is whether this practice is somewhat a creation of a new archive?

I am not suggesting historical events have never been video recorded. However, these were usually events such as weddings, parties and of late child birth. If morbid, these would be gross human rights violations such as the latest Marikana killings. Why then have families begun to capture their member’s last moments on earth and would such videos be of use for generations?

Dineo Skosana is an Archival Platform correspondent based in Gauteng.

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