THE INDIGNITY OF THE BACK YARD BURIAL
Thousands of people leave their rural homes to live and work in SA’s cities, but they end up living and dying in squalor in informal settlements, writes
Adam Ramphaka was an ordinary man. His name will not ring a bell for many. He never appeared on national TV, his voice was never heard on radio, his face was never in the press. This week, we lay to rest his mortal remains.
We need to celebrate a life that mirrors thousands in our country, one that opens our eyes to the social conditions of migrant workers in local communities.
Those who knew Ramphaka and spent a large part of his life with him are his fellow dwellers at the Msawawa informal settlement and surrounding areas.
The locals making up the population of these informal settlements are mostly migrant labourers.
Like Ramphaka, they all came to Johannesburg to look for opportunities to provide for their families. The living conditions in these settlements are very poor and the people living there lack basic social services.
Most labour migration originates from African households in rural areas where there are limited opportunities for employment or income generation.
Ramphaka left the rural village of Ndengeza, which is next to Giyani in Limpopo, to seek better prospects in Gauteng.
Historically, migrant workers provided abundant cheap labour for white-owned mines and farms, and enforced racial segregation of land.
Hundreds of thousands of African men lived in crowded single-sex hostels near their jobs, and were not allowed to bring their wives and children with them.
Many of these men took on second wives or girlfriends in these communities. With each partner, they needed to provide financial support and items such as food and clothing. Many communities depend on migrant workers and their monthly cash injection is a lifeline.
These men’s salaries are split between their urban partners and their rural families.
The detrimental consequences of the system on migrant labourers and their families, as well as the rural communities from which they are recruited, are an irrefutable historical fact.
With the phasing out of single-sex hostels, informal settlements such as Ramphaka’s mushroomed.
However, life in the shanty towns wasn’t necessarily better than life in those hostels. While a shack provides the modicum of privacy that was lacking when men were packed 20 in a room, the shacks come with serious hazards, such as fire and poor sanitation.
The cramped living conditions also expose the inhabitants to health risks.
The current government has done a lot to eradicate the slums, but the pace needs to be increased to improve the livelihoods of our fellow citizens who have the misfortune to live in such squalor.
It is hard to imagine that Ramphaka’s body had to be stored in mortuaries for almost a month while his next of kin were located and consulted on where to bury him. All of this had to be done in keeping with our African values, which were almost compromised by the most needed and yet scarce resource: money.
I lost my parents at an early age and many other family members are gone, so I could feel from a distance the pain that engulfed the Ramphakas. To them, this was a fait accompli and almost a point of no return – unfortunately, when faced with such a situation of limited options, even the sound of screaming birds might seem to make sense.
The sad story of Ramphaka epitomises the cruel realities wrought by the migrant labour system, as well as South Africa’s urbanisation.
Without real financial means, Ramphaka’s family listened to any burial suggestions, including to import their own traditional way of doing things into the city centre – a back yard burial. This reflected what our people are forced to do when confronted with a desperate situation.
When choices become limited, moral consciousness is supposed to reign supreme.
The gesture of humility displayed by the many volunteers, themselves residents of these informal settlements, instantly affirmed a great sense of brotherhood and restored our African values. We must salute these men and women of little means who moved mountains to contribute towards a solution and gave this ordinary man a dignified burial.
The idea of a back yard funeral 22 years into our democracy is shameful.
Every migrant labourer hopes that their final resting place will be in the land of their ancestors; a place of their childhood and rearing.
Ramphaka deserved honour. He deserved to be buried with dignity. His story must be a wake-up call.
Mabe is an ANC MP
DESPERATE LIVING A dilapidated hostel at the Grootvlei mine in Springs is home to a few mine workers who used to work at the mine. They have no food and are surviving on donations