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Nuwe skryfwerk | New writing > Fiksie | Fiction > English > Published authors

At the funeral

Phil Ndlela - 2009-03-10


The agony: I say their agony!
the agony of imagining their squalor but never knowing it
the agony of cramping them in roach-infested shacks
the agony of treating them like chattel slaves
the agony of feeding them abstract theories they do not understand …

the agony of it all I say the agony of it all
but above all the damn agony of appealing to their patience
Africa beware! their patience is running out!

– Syl Cheyney-Coker

At the funeral2

Dedicated to my younger brother Khaya!

“Comrade chair, I have no qualms with comrade Tofile’s academic qualifications – they look quite impressive – but there are other critical and probably more relevant issues that a meeting of this nature needs to address head-on before endorsing him for the province’s premiership. Do the people here know much about him? Is he equal to task? Can he unify the people of this province? Where was this wonderboy when some of us were suffering in Angola’s Pango Camp? These are some of the critical issues that seem to elude this meeting. Did comrade Tofile go overseas in order to further the movement’s mission and interests? No – he was on a personal agenda: the furtherance of his studies. How can this meeting blindly endorse a character of such dubious political credentials? Who can boldly vouch here that this man is no CIA agent? This guy’s a johnny-come-lately as far as I am concerned. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare offers some invaluable insights which might be of tremendous help to this meeting:

But ‘tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then lest he may, prevent …

"I exhort you to mark these words comrades. I am pretty sure this house will agree that our learned comrade is too pompous and independent. We do appreciate individual brilliance and talents, but then the crunch here is that our movement preaches the collective ethos. Won’t this untried and untested comrade feel suffocated and even stymied by that kind of approach? How will the movement contain and monitor such a self-conscious loose cannon once he’s in the driving seat? This man needs to be thoroughly schooled and immersed in the movement’s culture and policies first before being hastily thrown in the deep end …”
As soon as Goniwe left the podium to take his seat, a section of the house began ululating, clapping their hands and stomping their feet in unison. He seemed to relish this theatre while it lasted – he loved wowing and working audiences into a frenzy. He was a fire-and-brimstone-spitting kind of revolutionary who even in his high school days had distinguished himself as a fiery debater who spoke his mind.

His speech elicited quite a number of animated responses from the floor and it also became quite obvious that the house was divided right down the middle of Tofile’s candidacy. It raised tempers and at some point it looked as though the whole thing might degenerate into a free-for-all fisticuffs session.

It was the political acumen, persuasive skills and incredible foresight of Kili, the chairperson, that saved the day.

Ultimately the house seemed relatively united behind Tofile. Or was it?

A few days after his nomination as premier-elect, Tofile was found murdered in his car. The entire community was stunned and petrified with shock. Who had committed this dastardly act? people wondered. Former high school classmates, teachers, siblings and neighbours were united in their description of him as a visionary – a man of boundless energy and infinite resources who had been endowed with a sharp intellect. The entire community felt so impoverished by his death. His wife Buzi and mother No-something were on sedatives throughout the entire week leading to the funeral, which was held at the massive Sisa Dukashe Stadium in which the outgoing premier had described him as a true man of God and the people and a national asset whose academic prowess exploded and refuted the myth that black people were inherently lazy and inferior:

“Our hard-earned democracy is beginning to yield dividends even to those who were not part of the liberation movement. Take the case of a group of myopic, greedy and toyi-toying teachers who arrogantly went to my office last month complaining about low salaries and poor working conditions in their profession. I didn’t call in the SANDF or the SAPS as would have been the case under the previous authoritarian regime. Although my work schedule is quite horrendous and I had more pressing national issues to attend to, I relented, sat down with them and listened to their childish, illegitimate and unpatriotic complaints.

“Ngoozungul ‘ichele aba. Would the previous regime have accorded them this kind of undue respect, comrades? No. Where were these unprofessional teachers during the days of the struggle? Where was their newly found militancy and vociferousness when some of us had to bite the bullet and spend many years of hard labour in apartheid’s filthy and flea-ridden dungeons? Some of us were even forced into exile …”

At this point the premier paused, took out his handkerchief, lethargically wiped off the tears running down his chubby face and suddenly belted out a popular 1980’s freedom song:

Sizobashiya abazali,
Siye kwamany’ amazwe
Siyolwela izwe lakithi
Izwe I South Africa …

Seemingly, this outgoing veteran politician was expecting the crowd to join in, but they just remained mute and indifferent to the whole act. Others began streaming out of the stadium complaining about the oppressive heat and a long boring speech in which very little was said about the deceased – a man they had admired so much for the remarkable strides he had made in life.

The premier returned to his prepared speech: “Our teachers must learn to make sacrifices and stop behaving like mercenaries. As long as we have a bunch of self-seeking professionals who are hell bent on looting the nation’s limited resources, there will be no African renaissance here. Our government should be applauded for sticking to its promises: we have built houses and new schools and installed electricity in rural areas. Our constitution is the envy of the whole world. I therefore exhort you to go to the polls on December 5 and vote for the people’s party which is spearheading change in this country.”

He concluded by bellowing "Amandla!” and the crowd responded: “Amandla ngawakho. Nemali yeyakho!” The people had spoken, absolutely.

At this point the people’s party hierarchy, sporting their usual protruding and overhanging tummies and impressively styled suits, stood up, clapped hands and took turns in embracing their equally out of shape and out of touch commander-in-chief, congratulating him on what they thought was a fine speech.

The day’s MC, “KK”, gave instructions about directions to the Cambridge cemetery, but very few people were interested in this theatre at this stage.

“These guys are clowns. Do they think we are jerks? Personally I am through with political funerals,” muttered Zimkhitha as she went over to open the passenger door of her elegant BMW for her friend Khayakazi to hop in.

“Nothing substantive was said by these guys. I am utterly disappointed with the casual way Tofile’s funeral was conducted by the Party’s big wigs. I am really pissed off. Why wasn’t a single word of comfort said to the deceased’s mother, wife and children? How are they expected to heal? These guys make a lot of noise about gender issues, but why are they silent on the invaluable nurturing role that No-something played during her son’s formative years?" ventured Khayakazi, fuming.

At this stage Zimkhitha was scalding. “Did we come all the way here for a political rally or for a funeral? These fat farts have opportunistically used Tofile’s corpse to canvass votes for the upcoming general elections. I tell you, Khaya, I am through with political funerals. Let these fat farts continue plundering and looting the country’s resources. Why does the premier, a man who was elected by popular vote, drive an armoured vehicle? Why does he need so many bodyguards? Is he scared of the people who put him in power? Give me a break! Enough of this theatre. Let’s rather drive straight home and find something better to do.”




1. The poem “Peasants” appears in The Heritage of African Poetry, ed Isidore Okpewho, London: Longman, 1985, p 90.
2. This story was inspired by professor Njabulo Ndebele’s insightful article titled “ANC makes the state its enemy”, Sunday Times, 17 August 2008, p 21.