Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Burial Societies' Influential Role in Zimbabwe
With more than two million Zimbabweans now living in exile in South Africa, most in dire circumstances, the refugees' burgeoning burial societies have become an increasingly important focus of resistance to the government of President Robert Mugabe back home.
Death takes a heavy toll, particularly from the HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaging society, but the coffins of the Zimbabwe dead leaving South Africa for home every week return with more than just the bodies of loved ones.
Edmund Shava, a Zimbabwean asylum seeker who joined the Zvishavane Burial Society in Johannesburg two years ago, told IWPR, "We have discovered that we should not limit ourselves to discussing funeral issues in the burial society meetings, but work on ways to assist our relatives back home.
"Exiles return with the bodies of relatives for the funeral gatherings back home and these give them an opportunity to convene meetings where discussions can be held freely without being arrested by police under the draconian Public Order and Security Act [POSA]."
Burial societies and decent and lengthy funerals are integral parts of society in Zimbabwe and other African countries. Members of societies pay monthly subscriptions redeemable only when there is bereavement in the family. Typically, in Zimbabwe, members meet on one Sunday each month either under trees in open ground or in beer halls - a pattern now being emulated in South Africa.
The meetings are highly organised and strictly controlled affairs, with members wearing uniform blazers with coats of arms: latecomers are fined. Members are expected to attend the night-long, pre-burial vigil of other members' relatives who die and thus help their spirits pass on safely and at peace.
With the AIDS plague taking so many people in the prime of life - often husbands and wives die within short times of each other - burial societies are more relevant than ever before. They cover the full costs of a funeral, including the feeding of large numbers of mourners through the night and following day. Failure to join a burial society ensures a pauper burial and the humiliation that goes with it.
POSA forbids gatherings of more than two people without police permission. Enacted in 2002, it imposes severe restrictions on other civil liberties while criminalising a wide range of activities associated with freedom of expression and association. It provides for the imprisonment of journalists convicted of "causing hatred, contempt or ridicule of the President." It criminalises "false reporting" and statements that "incite or promote public disorder or public violence".
In South Africa every week, Zimbabwean burial societies gather in hundreds to accompany the body of a member back home. Those unable to afford the time or money to travel typically send back money and messages of encouragement with mourners journeying with the coffin. Civil society in Zimbabwe has been fragmented and become demoralised by the constant crackdowns of the past seven years by Mugabe's militias, police and soldiers: some of the burial societies back home have been infiltrated by the government's much-feared Central Intelligence Organisation, CIO.
In Zimbabwe, hundreds draw together for the night vigil and the day of the funeral, and the police dare not for traditional reasons use POSA to break up such gatherings. With most people afraid to speak out elsewhere, because of the ubiquitous presence of CIO agents, funerals provide opportunities for people to talk freely and share information. Pamphlets detailing alleged abuses by Mugabe's forces are smuggled in with coffins and distributed at the funerals. With all independent radio and television stations and all independent daily newspapers closed by the Mugabe government, people back home in Zimbabwe have little information about what is happening either domestically or internationally.
"We are now able to penetrate into rural areas unnoticed by the regime and we are building the momentum in the fight against Mugabe's dictatorship," said Shava. "But we have discovered that it is no use just preaching politics to people before you do something concrete to assist them. Strong words and a few bagfuls of groceries are not enough. At every meeting of the Zvishavane Burial Society, we make contributions that are eventually used for the development of our communities back home."
Shava himself was unable last year to travel to Zimbabwe to bury a relative because he feared political persecution. He has limited himself to waving off the funeral processions as they begin their journeys over several hundred kilometres to various destinations in Zimbabwe
The first Zimbabwean burial society to be formed in South Africa was the Masasane (Let's Meet Together) Burial Society in the grim inner suburb of Hillbrow, an upmarket whites-only area during the apartheid era, but now a run-down, with decaying flats overcrowded with refugees and economic migrants from other parts of Africa where Nigerian druglords reign and death stalks the streets.
The Masasane Burial Society was named after an area near Hillbrow police station, which has become a popular meeting place for exiled Zimbabweans gathering for demonstrations against the Mugabe government. When hearses and convoys of mini-bus taxis packed with mourners prepare to leave Masasane each Friday, hundreds of people mingle and discuss the political crisis and economic meltdown back home.
As the flood of refugees into South Africa across the Limpopo River - the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa - increased exponentially in direct relationship to the collapse of political freedoms and the Zimbabwe economy, the number of burial societies grew to more than fifty. Most have taken on a dual role, becoming pressure and development groups looking at ways to empower people inside the country and help them continue the struggle against what is widely regarded as the Mugabe dictatorship.
Mlamuli Nkomo, director of the Mthwakazi Forum, which coordinates all exile Zimbabwe organisations in South Africa, said the burial societies are helping to dissuade some of their countrymen from following their own journeys southwards across the Limpopo, where many people have drowned or been taken by crocodiles during hazardous illegal night crossings.
"The burial societies have contributed hugely to their home communities by investing money they raise in exile into basic infrastructure," said Nkomo. Roads, which in rural areas have been neglected by the Mugabe government, have been built. Computers have been supplied to schools. Sports tournaments have been sponsored. In Tsholotsho, an area of western Zimbabwe which was targeted in the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s by Mugabe's North Korea-trained 5th Brigade, burial society money is being ploughed into the building of a library and a laboratory for a secondary school.
"The societies are becoming really relevant to their communities because they are no longer confining themselves to death issues," said Nkomo. "They have penetrated their home communities with their development projects, and they have had such an impact that some youths who might otherwise have fled to South Africa have decided to stay home."
Shava said he and most other Zimbabwean exiles agreed with Nkomo, "Mugabe for the past decade has outfoxed, intimidated and bribed rural voters by using his ruling party's control of scarce food supplies while implementing only piecemeal development projects. The rural people, with hardly any access to outside information, are virtual prisoners of the regime but they are also the key to eventual change. But we are making an impact in our home communities. At the end of the day, we will manage to influence the political and social direction in Zimbabwe.”
Zakeus Chibaya is a Zimbabwean journalist exiled in South Africa.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight