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societies' influential role in Zimbabwe
Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR)
Chibaya in Johannesburg (AR No. 92, 30-Jan-07)
January 30, 2007
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.
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
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
and Security Act [POSA]."
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,
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
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.
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
"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.
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
is a Zimbabwean journalist exiled in South Africa.
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