Grave concerns fire up protesters
LAST Sunday, during our Eucharist service, a group of people gathered in protest on the steps of St George’s Cathedral.
As I walked out through the cathedral doors, the pungent smell of burning kooigoed immediately brought memories of my childhood to mind. It also confused me.
The sage we burnt in our home was part of a rite to ward off evil and to assert our faith in God, whom we called upon to protect us.
Now it was part of the theatre of protests against the mother church of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa (ACSA). Some people in the group of 30-something protesters self-identified as members of the khoi community.
Just a week ago, a woman from the Northern Cape had told me, “I am proud to know that we have a Boesman dean at our cathedral”.
The lyrics of Bob Marley’s Ambush in the Night defined the moment: “All guns aiming at me. Ambush in the night. They opened fire on me.” Our church was in the firing line of people who accused us of being greedy capitalists and lying grave robbers.
Concerned residents of Garlandale, Athlone, were unhappy about an anticipated property development adjacent to the local high school in the area and they felt there had been inadequate consultation and communication.
Others added their voices to the call to halt the exhumation of the remains of 2 500 people buried at Black River Cemetery in Athlone.
The land is owned by ACSA and we had adhered to the requirements of the Heritage Act with regard to the exhumation process.
On Sunday, the protesters extended their battle site from the cemetery to the steps of “The People’s Cathedral”.
It was a target well chosen, as the steps are the traditional site to register calls for justice.
A further irony was that the Sunday of the protests against ACSA was within the octave of days in which we commemorate All Saints Day. Our liturgical focus remembered the many unsung and unknown heroes of the faith, whose fidelity was known only to God. Many of the dead of Black River Cemetery could surely be numbered on the roll of honour associated with All Saints Day.
I am a member of our church’s board of trustees and therefore party to the decision with regard to the cemetery. In a statement, I appealed that the church and the various interest groups should sit down and talk, and listen to each other without pre-judgement.
By Monday, Headman Joe Damons of the Western Cape Legislative KhoiSan Council (WCLKSC), contacted me and said the following: “We deeply regret the incident that took place outside the church, and condemned the conduct of the protesters in the most strongest terms ever.”
He also welcomed my request for engagement and asked that we reflect “on these very serious issues pertaining to the plight of the Aboriginal KhoiSan Peoples (‘coloureds’) and the huge responsible role the church ought to play in the dynamics of these challenges”.
In retrospection, I acknowledge that we ought to have approached the exhumation process in a manner that was more inclusive of the broad sector of Cape Town’s commonwealth of communities.
When someone dies, there is the organised comfort of a prayer meeting as part of the rituals of mourning. During the burial service, the life of the deceased is recalled and remembered in tributes, songs and poetry.
The dead are laid to rest to the sound of our voices saying their names, remembering their laughter. We bid our fond and sad farewell while singing hymns to accompany them on their journey to the home of eternal love.
We can be right according to the stipulation of the law and yet wrong in the way we regard those who have died as if they are dead.
They are alive in so many ways and it not too late to honour them appropriately.
Let us gather at the table of uncomfortable conversations and talk, no matter how right we may be and how wrong we believe others to be. That is the African way.