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

CityPress - - Voices -

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

PHOTO: FELIX DLANGAMANDLA

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

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