A strange fact about funerals

2009-04-03 00:00

I attended yet another funeral on Saturday, one of many over the last few years as colleagues, friends, neighbours, politicians, employees and their relatives have passed on.

These funerals take place all over the city, from Elandskop to Hayfields, and always I am struck by the same strange fact — white people don’t attend African funerals. Why am I always the exception that proves the rule? The converse is not the case — Africans attend funerals of all races, to show respect and empathy for colleagues and employers — even when those employers have been mean or unpleasant.

Generally I stand alone, particularly if the funeral is in a township, in a sea of African mourners, wondering where everyone else is who knew this person. His or her workmates or boss at least. I have tried to understand it and have only two possible explanations.

The first is fear — fear of townships, fear of being “outnumbered”, fear of the unknown. And yet I have travelled almost daily into townships for 20 years, and not once experienced any threatening incident. My car has not been stolen, my person not harassed. I experience either welcome or indifference. It is true that I sit in funerals unable to sing the songs, not always completely understanding what is happening — but if confused I can ask someone. African funerals also take longer. But isn’t it more important to show that you care, and to participate in the grieving, than to worry about these things?

The second possible explanation is that, at the end of the day, the inter-racial relationships formed at work and elsewhere are shallow and superficial. People are colleagues at work because they have to be, out of expediency or political correctness, but are still not recognising deeply each other’s equal humanity, and forming genuine friendships. At the end of the day, they just don’t actually care that much — not enough to inconvenience themselves.

How can we move forward as a nation like this? I have only one reason for optimism. At the tragic funeral of the bright and talented Samukele Khumalo, first black head boy of St Charles College, the chapel at the school was filled to overflowing with mourners of all races. There were tears flowing from schoolmates and parents, in a show of genuine grief. Perhaps with the youth there is hope for the future — but would parents have taken their sons had the funeral been held in Imbali?

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