What lies ahead for Mandela family: AbaThembu mourning and burial customs explained

By Charlene
13 December 2013

We take a closer look at customs of the AbaThembu clan ahead of Madiba's funeral.

Ugqatso ulifezile (you have completed your journey) aaaaah Dalibhunga! Mthembu, Yem Yem, Ngqolomsila, Sopitsho, Vela bambhentsele, Zondwa zintshaba zingazumenz'anto!

FUNERAL PREPARATIONS Before the funeral, furniture is removed and female family members clean the home where the deceased was living. In the old days, the walls of the main hut where the deceased was living were covered in soil. Now the main house is usually cleaned and painted. A mat is put on the floor of the main bedroom where the widow will sit, preferably below a window.

'Traditionally, AbaThembu use their homestead as a final resting place where their deceased are buried. After the funeral, a period of strict mourning for the bereaved family will be observed'


A number of rituals accompany the burial. When the head of a household dies, umkhapho (accompanying the spirit) and umbuyiso (bringing back the spirit) rituals are performed.

Because of the belief in after-life coupled with the belief that the departed continues to live in the hereafter, on the day of the funeral or soon afterwards, elders slaughter an ox very early in the morning for umkhapho.

Umkhapho ritual is intended to help facilitate the movement beyond so that the ancestor can return later. Ukuzila (mourning) may continue until the performance of the umbuyiso ritual.


Mourning rituals begin immediately after the family member has been declared dead. The meaning of the Xhosa word ukuzila, to mourn, is to abstain. Following the death of the head of the household or a traditional leader, various restrictions apply to dress code, diet and routine daily activities.

In the case of an elder or a traditional leader, villagers must abstain from all chores and festivities for a limited period.

It is the responsibility of the family members to decide how long ukuzila should take place. However, it is customary for the wife of the deceased to mourn for a period of a year. All family members including children must shave their heads and abstain from all festivities as a sign of mourning.

The widow is called by the family and given instructions on how she must conduct herself during the mourning period. It is customary for a woman to cover her head with a black scarf and wear a blanket over her shoulders, which she will wear until the end of the mourning period. She must also wear a black dress during this period.

The men and other family members wear a black button with a black cloth. The bereaved are not to raise their voices when speaking amongst family members and to other people in general. They are also not to socialise.

At the end of the mourning period, the widow’s clothes are taken off and burned and women gather round the widow and bring her new clothes. This is called ukhulula izila (taking off mourning clothing). The buttons that were worn by the bereaved family are also burnt.


AbaThembu also follow the ritual of umbuyiso. This is when it is believed that the person who died has now become an ancestor to protect the family. This usually happens within the first year.

The family slaughters an ox. Unlike umkhapho, umbuyiso is a celebratory event and therefore includes fermented traditional beer.

By Asa Sokopo (@asasokopo) – Asa is a member of the AbaThembu clan. Mam’Ntlotshane, Mam’Thembu, Nyejane, Ngubengcuka, Jali, Qathal’ikhuni.

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