A death and life experience

Mail & Guardian – 17 April 2014 

When I first learned how to bathe and shroud a dead body, I was in high school. I remember the life-size doll my teacher used to demonstrate to the class the proper way to wrap a dead body in seven pieces of unstitched cloth. Back then, the greatest relevance of the demonstration was because it would form part of an end-of-year exam. Death felt too distant for us to actually summon this knowledge in any real-life situation.

But less than two years later, I stood against the protruding edge of a steel table-bath that had been rapidly brought into my uncle’s kitchen in Pretoria. My grandmother had passed away hours earlier.

I remember relatives around me, encouraging me to participate, to help to bathe my grandmother. The experience felt surreal, as though it was happening apart from me. The shock of those last few hours numbed me to what lay before me, the body of someone I love being prepared to be lowered into the ground, never to be seen again.

Those lessons at school suddenly held real-life value, but when it was my own grandmother – and not a doll – in front of me, the theory of the rites felt hollow. Still, it was the theory, the lessons drummed into us at schools and madrasas, that impressed on us the absolute importance of the ghusl (the bathing of the deceased).

It’s described as a fardh-e-kifaayah, an obligatory action that, if one person in the community performs it, the obligation on the rest of the community is relieved. But if no one performs it, then the offence is committed by everyone in the community.

Yet in those moments when grief is fresh, it’s not thoughts of a communal obligation that dictate what you do. And when we are not aggrieved, busy as we’ve prided ourselves into being, few of us actually consider the administration of death. We take it for granted that there is someone with enough time and the requisite knowledge to do it for us, or for those we love.

But at some point in the past six years in central Johannesburg, there was a real fear that there would not be any women who would be able to bathe and shroud the dead.

And so my sister and I volunteered at a community organisation in Fordsburg. The two women who regularly oversaw the bathing and shrouding of dead Muslim women in this part of Johannesburg were growing old. The head of one community organisation was ­particularly concerned that, when these two tannies (aunties) passed on, there would be no other women with the requisite experience to clean the dead.

That he’s now dead whereas these two women are still alive is a cruel trick of fate.

My sister and I were earmarked to take over from Ayesha Baai and Choti Baai, as the two elderly women are affectionately known. But first we’d have to work with them, learn from them, help them as far as we could. I wouldn’t say my sister and I were enthusiastic to become substitute toekamannies, as the women who bathe and shroud the dead are known in the Malay community, but I accepted the importance of the work they do – unpaid, ­anonymous work, fulfilling a religious obligation in the background of everyday life.

Service and community
With the air thick with the smell of camphor and incense, I learned something about being part of a community, I learned something about serving other people without any expectation of reward, with often just the briefest acknowledgement of thanks.

And yet it was not exactly morbid work either.

In the time we had before a body arrived we would laugh, the two old women would tease each other about their age, switching between English and Gujarati with ease. They would complain about the quality of the towels and assure us that, by refusing to use the shower affixed to the bath table and instead using jugs of water, we ensured the dead women we bathed were better respected.

“The men just use the shower, I hear,” Ayesha Baai would say while shaking her head. “But how do they know if the water is right, if the pressure is too hard?

“They do everything slapdash,” she would confide in a conspiratorial tone, assuring us, and herself perhaps, that we were more careful, more respectful, more empathetic towards the deceased.

Dignity for the deceased
Our laughter and chatter stopped as soon as a bereaved family entered the room. Then a body would be carried into the room by men and laid on to the table bath. When the men disappeared into an anteroom, the door shut, and we began.

I am generally squeamish. But somehow in that room my natural inclination to squirm away was quelled. Our emphasis on securing the dignity of the deceased – no matter what – helped to shield me from possibly gory sights, but it also taught me a lesson in respect of the personal, of the individual, even in death.

With time, my sister and I fitted into our roles. We knew what to do. Tear off large pieces of cotton wool. Crush camphor with a mallet. Find large towels to cover the body. Fill buckets with lukewarm water. Make sure it’s lukewarm, without putting your own hand into the bucket and contaminating it.

On the opposite side of the room, two of us would unroll the kafn – the seven pieces of unstitched white cloth that the deceased woman would be wrapped in after being bathed.

There was a particular method, a cathartic routine that gave me something to do when I was not sure what to say to the bereaved family. Often, I would stand beside the buckets of water, dipping jugs into it and distributing them to the aunties and the family members, urging them to take the lead from the two old women: do as they do and say, but mostly, don’t be afraid.

Last rites
Then there were the times when the aunties were out of town, or unavailable. Suddenly my sister and I were leading a room full of teary-eyed women in the last rites of their beloved. On at least one of these occasions we went back to the books we used at school, to make sure we knew how to layer the kafn. The responsibility was immense.

It’s been some years now since I‘ve helped to bathe a deceased woman. It certainly was not a conscious ­decision to stop volunteering. I was unavailable a few times they called.

Then the calls stopped coming altogether. And although the aunties are now both too frail to do the ghusl and kafn, I’ve heard that another pair of women are now the designated toekamannies in central Johannesburg. All those fears of no one being around were disproved after all.

I suppose for as long as the will for people to be buried as Muslims is strong, there will always be someone to call on, someone with the experience or the textbook knowledge of what to do in those final hours.

The experience of those few months has stayed with me. The repeated experience of facing death as though it was routine forced a unique contemplation, not least of an awareness of death.

Closeness of God
As a child I learned that God is closer to me than my jugular vein. He is near, not remote. He exists within my being, not in the skies looming above me.

And although closeness here is meant to convey physical proximity, I’ve come to realise that it also evokes the necessity of God for life and death. It has also reminded me that a relationship with God is often precarious; it is prone to the protruding edge of an exposed switchblade.

And yet, as I’ve grown older, I’ve felt the unshakeable faith in this nearness of God waver. It’s not that I’ve stopped believing. But the longer I’ve lived, the busier I’ve become; the grime of this world has sometimes made me forget God’s nearness.

Although I’ve always known that an attempt to reaffirm that closeness does not hinge on simply kneeling down longer before him, the experience of discharging a communal responsibility offered me a chance to reflect on self and other, individual and community.

And how we come together – in life and in death – in his name.



No prisoner is an island

City Press November 2013 –

In the B-Section yard of the ­Robben Island prison, South ­African struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada points to the famous black-and-white photograph of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu deep in conversation in that very yard.

As photographers kick up dust ­behind him, Kathrada explains that the prisoners were unaware that this photograph was circulated to the world as part of the apartheid government’s propaganda campaign.

Majed Bamya, a senior official in the Palestinian foreign ministry’s prisoners portfolio, translates Kathrada’s story of the photographs into Arabic for the group gathered beside him.

Kathrada pauses, allowing his words to settle on the Arabic speakers before continuing.

Still pointing to the photo of Mandela and Sisulu, he says Mandela, as a black man, was allowed only short pants and no socks in the prison. Kathrada, meanwhile, as an Indian and was allowed long pants and socks.

His small audience is captivated.

Fadwa Barghouti, the wife of Palestinian political prisoner Marwan Barghouti shakes her head in disbelief.

It is a privilege visiting Robben Island with the 84-year-old Kathrada. The man who spent 18 years in the ­island prison alongside the likes of Mandela, Sisulu and Govan Mbeki is the most qualified of guides – a role he was asked to take by Mandela himself in 1994. Since then, he has shown heads of state and celebrities around the notorious apartheid prison, from US President Barack Obama to singer Beyoncé.

Today is different. Kathrada is both tour guide and comrade to a delegation of senior officials from the Palestinian Authority who are here to campaign for the freedom of the man they call “the Palestinian Mandela”. Barghouti was sentenced to life imprisonment in Israel in 2003 for his part in the Intifada uprisings against Israeli occupation that started in September 2000.

Kathrada was inspired to take up the cause of political prisoners on his return from a recent visit to Palestine, which he says made him realise that Palestine is a colony of Israel.

Inside the prison cell that was once Mandela’s, Kathrada signed the
Robben Island Declaration, calling for the immediate release of Barghouti and other Palestinian political prisoners from Israeli custody.

Barghouti, now aged 54, and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, was once an ardent supporter of negotiations with Israel, but as talks floundered on the creation of an independent Palestinian state, he rose through
resistance politics to lead the second Intifada. He was convicted of three terror attacks in which four Israelis and a Greek monk were killed, as well as in another charge of attempted murder and membership of a terror organisation.

He was also accused of having founded the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a charge he denies. His lawyers insist he is a political leader who is unfairly being held responsible for actions beyond his realm of influence.

Throughout his trial, he maintained that his capture by Israeli forces and subsequent trial were illegal. He refused to recognise the court, and his lawyers instead sought to put Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territory on trial.

It was Barghouti’s rousing speech at the end of his trial that drew comparisons to Mandela. He said in Hebrew: “The occupation cannot continue over the Palestinian people who want freedom and independence like every other people in the world.”

The similarities between the struggle against apartheid and the fight for
Palestine were not lost on the men and women gathered under Kathrada’s wing on Robben Island last week. It was here that political opposition in South Africa was sentenced to a slow death.

“There are so many similarities,” one Palestinian politician remarked.

According to Addameer, a Jerusalem-based nongovernmental organisation offering support to Palestinian prisoners and torture victims: “As of September 2013, there were 5?007 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons and detention centres, including 137 ­administrative detainees [prisoners held without trial], 12 women and 180 childr en.”

The organisation estimates that about 40% of Palestinian men have been arrested at least once in their lives.

“This affects virtually every Palestinian family,” says Bamya. “It means you have plenty of families who are missing a father, a brother, a son. It means a strain on mothers?…”

While Kathrada admits it may be some time before the campaign sees results, he believes it will succeed in increasing international support for Barghouti and other political prisoners.

The Robben Island Declaration will be circulated to civil organisations around the world before it is submitted to the Israeli government.

The latter, however, denies that it has any political prisoners in its custody.

It argues that prisoners like Barghouti are convicted terrorists. Similarly, the SA Zionist Federation has condemned the campaign, saying it is “insulting and demeaning” to South Africans to draw comparisons between Barghouti and Mandela.

“Palestinian Mandela” or not, Barghouti – also known as the Prince of the Resistance – is respected, even ­revered, by all Palestinians.

His support base goes beyond the banners of Fatah, Hamas and the
Islamic Jihad. Barghouti himself is a member of Fatah.

And as he languishes in an Israeli prison cell, Barghouti is still considered a favourite to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinian Authority president.

In a message read out by Fadwa on Robben Island last week, Barghouti spoke directly to South Africans.

“There is clearly no [Charles] De Gaulle and no [FW] De Klerck [sic] yet in Israel,” he wrote. “The struggle of the anti-apartheid movement has transformed Robben Island from a symbol of oppression to a living testimony of the triumph of freedom over chains, of light over darkness, of hope over despair.

“I will come and visit this place one day, a free man, citizen of a free country, and with freedom as my horizon. I am reminded of a great man, who did not only see that horizon, but shaped it with his companions, including from within prison, the great Nelson Mandela, the heart of your inspirational power.”

His message is signed: “Marwan Barghouti Cell no 28, Hadarim prison.”


Mayfair: How dodgy is my ’hood?

City Press 15 October 2013 – 

Mayfair in Joburg is where the Sun, Moon and Star, each the name of a corner barbershop, take each other on in the fiercely contested male-hairdressing trade.

It’s here in Mayfair – between a traffic light that hasn’t worked for longer than two weeks since it was installed two years ago, and a BMW showroom that is now a shopping centre – that Mogadishu is not just a city in Somalia and Hanover is not just a town in Germany.

As the sun dips low in the sky over Arthur Bloch Park, the call to sunset prayer sounds over Mayfair, a chorus of voices calling the Muslim faithful to pause and reflect. Traffic on Hanover Street has ebbed.

A trickle of cars flows into the mosque’s parking lot. Men and children walk to the building in groups, chatting in the glow of the sunset.

Hanover Bakery prepares to close and a guard watches over its entrance with a wary eye. Down the road, the Bangladeshi-owned corner shop has shut, but still serves customers through a small opening in its gate.

When darkness descends, there’s little glamour about Mayfair.

Residents scurry indoors behind high walls and electric fences – if they are lucky. The less fortunate retire to flattened-out cardboard boxes beneath the stars on Railway Street.

This is Mayfair, where people seek refuge from bloody conflicts and hopelessness and where people come to survive, whatever it takes.

Mayfair, home to the middle class, working class and homeless. A home to Somali refugees, Ethiopian asylum seekers, Tanzanian shopkeepers, Malawian cooks, Turkish butchers and Pakistani barbers.

It’s a chaotic union of colour, language and culture that seems to find harmony in only one common complaint: that the Somalis really must learn how to park better.

This is Mayfair, where, between the cheese deli and the fruit juice shop on Queens Road, is “Dr” Moosa. He plies his trade in bringing back lost lovers, rescuing businesses, predicting futures and righting past wrongs.

He and his colleagues are keen marketers. There’s hardly a street in Mayfair that hasn’t been littered with pamphlets advertising the services of prophets, doctors and holy men.

Those in Mayfair are not unique in the attention showered on them by these peddlers of the dark arts. But in Mayfair there are other dark arts that others rarely see advertised.

Pamphlets advertising everything from prostitution, “hit man services”, your choice of narcotics and “terrorism training”, all conveniently located at a hair salon on Church Street, were distributed in sealed envelopes earlier this year.

One pamphlet announced: “We are freedom fighters. What we don’t get, we will grab. As you know that Home Affairs and South African Police Services is in my pocket. I will be more than happy to provide you my services to sort out all your illegal matters, the only condition is that you have to put your hands in the pocket and spend money that’s all (sic).”

By the end, the pamphlet seemed to be lampooning itself. It just couldn’t be real. Still, some in Mayfair were shocked, while others were less surprised.

As one businessman puts it: “It’s probably a hoax, but that salon has a dodgy reputation.”

Months later, the salon’s owner dismisses questions about the pamphlet, saying he identified the employee who did it “and we gave him a warning”.

“I don’t want to talk about it any more,” he adds.

Some in Mayfair wonder whether Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor was right when she said it is no longer easy to obtain a South African passport through illicit means.

The so-called White Widow, Samantha Lewthwaite, who reportedly lived in Mayfair, was somehow able to obtain a South African passport.

If you want a SIM card that has escaped the Rica process, need to renew a driver’s licence without the queues, prescription drugs without the prescription or a firearm licence without the test, there’s always someone in Mayfair who knows someone who can help.

In the Amal shopping centre in Mayfair’s “little Mogadishu”, Somalis are annoyed at journalists who have beaten a path there, hunting for clues about Lewthwaite’s stay in Joburg.

A middle-aged Somali man sits at the reception desk of the shopping’s centre offices.

“Nobody knows this woman (Lewthwaite) here. How will a white woman be here with Somali people and nobody can remember her?” the receptionist asks.

The shopping centre has the feel of a Middle Eastern souk, though it sells chiefly cheap Chinese goods. A group of the man’s friends gather around.

“Somali people are not so advanced to know how to make fake passports,” the receptionist says. “We know that if you want fake passports, you go to Hillbrow?…”

One friend adds: “To the Nigerians.”

The receptionist continues: “But you know, even in the immigration, if you have enough money, you can get a real South African passport.”

The friend interjects again: “But us Somali people, we are not doing these things.”

Somali elder Sheikh Ahmed Abdi says his countrymen have carved a niche for themselves in Mayfair, because this is where they’ve felt most at home.

“Somalis are Muslim. They are 100% Muslim. When they settled here in this area in the 1990s, this was a Muslim area. They want to be connected with their faith – at the mosque and the madrasah (religious school) and all those things,” he says.

Mayfair was also a convenient base for Somalis working at the Oriental Plaza in neighbouring Fordsburg. Few Somalis, however, work there any more.

Abdi describes the Somali community as a “business-minded people”. And their South African neighbours take issue with that.

Bird Street has been entirely transformed in the last two years.

Homes have been turned into restaurants. The ground floors of blocks of flats are now shopping centres. All this has been done without rezoning permissions or respect for bylaws.

But as Somalis radically convert parts of Mayfair, they are also credited with driving up property values.

“The price of Mayfair has gone up,” Abdi says. “When you are talking about rent or to buy houses, it’s gone up.”

Few homes for sale in Mayfair are bought by anyone else. No one knows where the money comes from, but speculation is rife that Somali piracy has provided some of it. Abdi denies that Somalis are flaunting any ill-gotten wealth in Mayfair.

“It’s not that they have the big money, but the money that they have is from hard work. They go to the locations and work hard without electricity, water or anything,” he says.

“This is the securest place in Johannesburg, because people see this as a safe haven.”

Hairdresser Ivan Constance has spent most of his life living and working in Mayfair and Fordsburg. His salon on Church Street is always on top of the latest gossip.

Constance shakes his head at “the drugs that are going on”, but has harsh words for some of those who have moved out.

“Somebody came and said to me, ‘Oh, is it safe for me to park my car here?’ My God!” Ivan says with disgust.

“You come here to the butcher shop. Your parents live around the corner. You come to the spice shop here. You come and buy food at Akhalwayas and you used to go down to Rama’s to buy your veggies. Now everybody comes here to Sameer,” he says pointing out the window in the direction of the Egyptian grocer.

“So why do you ask me a stupid question like that? It’s because you live in the north now.”

As Constance bemoans the squalor he believes is bringing Mayfair down, others are more upbeat.

Muhammad Abdul-Azeem says, “There are no junkies. At least you don’t see many junkies hanging around here.”

He has recently opened a restaurant, Heavenly Smoothies and Sandwiches, on Church Street.

Still, Abdul-Azeem admits crime lurks in the shadows.

Mayfair is many things. It is dodgy in places and some of its people are indeed dodgy too. But it is much more than that. It is home.



State of the Nation: Who is Zuma speaking to?

BricsPost – 12 February 2013 – 

More than one South African commentator has sniggered about the unfortunate timing of this year’s State of the Nation address, Valentine’s Day.

One opposition MP has even suggested on the record that this year’s State of the Nation address was strategically scheduled to prevent President Jacob Zuma from choosing with which of his five wives he’ll be spending the amorous day.

It has become something of a national sport to mock Zuma’s polygamous lifestyle. And rarely does Zuma appear at a state function with one or another of his wives without someone glibly commenting about his choice of companion.

Zuma has failed to command the respect afforded to his predecessor Thabo Mbeki or the reverence offered to Nelson Mandela.

Even after winning a second term as president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Africa’s oldest liberation movement, Zuma is still dogged by his narrow escape from corruption charges, an acquittal on rape charges and his choice of polygamy.

Recent revelations of a security upgrade costing taxpayers in excess of 200 million rands ($22.6 million) at his personal home in the village of Nkandla has done little to repair his image.

Zuma, his staff and loyalists within the ANC claim the president is not getting the respect he deserves. They say he is the target of a malicious smear campaign fraught with racial undertones; and sometimes they are right.

But more often, it is Zuma himself who has failed in his presidency to be the leader the country needs.

At a time that South Africa has been hurtling precariously from one crisis to the next, he has failed to exhibit decisive leadership that could have diverted attention away from his personal history.

Losing faith in the leadership

When he gives his address today, Zuma will be facing a nation with little faith in its elected leadership.

A survey conducted by global market research company Ipsos revealed that there has been a decline in public perception of the government’s performance.


Conducted between October and December 2012, thesurvey reveals that 52 per cent of respondents believed the government was performing well. In May 2012, that figure stood at 61 per cent.

Following the Marikana miners’ strike in which police killed 47 protesters and injured dozens, South Africans are seeking a government that will address the uglier challenges and difficulties that face post-Apartheid South Africa

Most South Africans will be listening to Zuma’s address with the expectation that he indicates government is ready and willing to fix the crises ailing the country.

But who will Zuma really be talking to?

Investors over ordinary citizens?

Patrick Bond, the director of the University of Kwazulu Natal’s Centre for Civil Society, believes Zuma will choose to allay the fears of investors instead of speaking directly to the concerns of ordinary South Africans.

“Zuma won’t mainly speak to the more than one in three women who suffer sexual attacks [in South Africa], will he? Nor will his speech convince the desperate workers and poor people in Western Cape farms, retrenchment-ridden North West province mining belt and shack settlements in our wretched industrial wastelands, even if these South Africans have already reached breakpoint just a month into the new year,” says Bond.

Bond believes Zuma’s State of the Nation address will be tailored toward the ratings agencies who last year downgraded the country’s credit rating.

“Zuma’s charm will be directed towards financiers, whose nervousness about South Africa led Moody’s last September to downgrade our national credit rating,” Bond says.

“The revision reflects Moody’s view of the SA authorities’ reduced capacity to handle the current political and economic situation.”

And yet, in the run-up to the State of the Nation Address, Zuma’s office has certainly made a show at least of involving ordinary South Africans in the president’s preparations for the speech.

His office launched a first-ever community and stakeholder outreach programme designed to receive input from South Africans on critical issues facing the country.  He visited a vocational college in Pretoria, while his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, visited farmers and farmworkers in Paarl, in the Western Cape, on Tuesday.

This interaction with grassroots communities, staged for the State of the Nation as it is, is not characteristic of Zuma’s administration. During his presidency, South Africa has become the protest capital of the world. Almost daily, disgruntled communities across the country take to the streets to protest against the failures of local government and the parlous state of service delivery in the poorest areas of the country.

The street action stems from a frustration with the channels available for engagement with government. People feel cut off from the structures governing their lives and when that disconnectedness is made apparent, violence has become a means of communication.

If we define democracy as the active participation of people, as citizens, in politics and civil life, then the violence that accompanies these protests points to a failure of democracy in South Africa.

Zuma will inform South Africans on the state of their nation on Thursday but to many his pronouncements have become the cold calculations of men and women in plush offices far removed from the people they were meant to represent.