In October last year the community of Namahadi, a township outside Frankfort in the Free State, was given a piece of land to be used as a burial site. Three months and 38 burials later, those who lay there and those they left behind seem not to have found peace.
“Graves are collapsing. They are falling in, leaving coffins exposed,” Namahadi community forum spokesperson Thenjiwe Zapi told City Press.
According to Zapi, the cemetery was opened as an official burial site and given to the people living in the township of Namahadi “because the two cemeteries we have in the township are full and the municipality identified this specific farm”.
A statement from the Mafube Local Municipality, under which Namahadi falls, concurred.
“The land parcel belongs to the municipality and after we realised that we were running out of burial space the municipality appointed a service provider to conduct suitable tests for the purpose in question,” acting municipal manager Diao Ramabitsa told City Press on Thursday.
Zapi said although she was no expert, it only made sense that the “farm assigned for burial purposes by the municipality be assessed prior to being used as such”.
“It needed to be checked. We cannot just use land for sensitive and important matters such as burials without following proper procedure and doing due diligence.”
“There are 38 corpses buried there and it is a painful sight to see the state in which the graves are in because the land is not suitable and should not be used for this purpose,” she said.
According to Zapi, a number of families who have buried their loved ones on the new site want to have the bodies exhumed and reburied “at a cemetery in town, in Frankfort”.
“We have been writing to the municipality and we have been to the office of the director of community services asking them who approved that land.”
“We asked them for a letter or a report from relevant parties and assessors who approved the use of the land as a burial site and to this day we have not received a response from them.”
City Press has seen a letter addressed to the office of the director of community services, dated January 8 2021, from a family that buried a loved one two weeks ago.
The family pleads: “With the utmost respect, leaders, we would like to be granted permission to have the body of our deceased removed from the current site because it seems like it has a fountain and has damaged our father’s final resting place.”
Zapi lamented the municipality’s lack of urgency in addressing the matter, saying that “people are buried on a regular basis and this matter is of one of utmost importance and cannot be ignored or pushed aside”.
“We have taken a decision as the forum and community that should the municipality fail to give us answers and address this issue immediately then we will be left with no choice but to go and shut down that cemetery and they will have to make sure that people are able to bury in the cemetery in Frankfort.”
“The municipality must account. They must produce proof that this land was assessed and approved to be used as a burial site and from there legal steps must be taken.”
Another letter seen by City Press, dated January 13 2021 and addressed to the municipal manager, the director of community services and the executive mayor of Mafube, from the forum and other stakeholders including funeral parlours, reads:
“The above-mentioned stakeholders, together with the community of Namahadi, have taken a joint decision that, effective from January 16, there will be no more burials on that site and people should be buried in town.”
The group wants a letter of approval that the land used for burial passed all the necessary processes and that a new burial site has been identified and approved.
Zapi explained that when the forum went to the current site last week it found that even though existing graves had already collapsed, new graves were still being dug up.
“One of the employees we found there had been using a bucket and rope in an effort to drain water from one of the graves that had been dug and ready for use.”
According to Ramabitsa, there was no evidence to support the notion that graves at the site were collapsing.
“Due to various environmental developments, the soil erodes. The report that graves are submerged in water is misleading, false and deserves contempt,” he said.
“Whoever it is, they saw an empty grave that had collected rain water and assumed that was generally how the municipality conducted its affairs.”
How burial sites are zoned
Speaking to City Press on Wednesday to explain instances where graves could collapse, Solly Mashabela of the City of Ekurhuleni said that an area first needs to be zoned as a grave site before it can be used as such. Zoning laws and regulations dictate how property can and cannot be used in certain geographic areas.
“Before [an area] is zoned, information that should be submitted would include an environmental impact assessment report, which will determine whether the land is suitable for burial,” Mashabela said.
“[The report] looks at issues of groundwater – whether it will or will not be negatively affected because when you bury you do so above groundwater, so whether the groundwater below will not be affected by having corpses buried on top.”
Mashabela said when environmentalists conduct their analyses “they determine whether the land is dolomitic or not, which will avoid instances of graves collapsing or falling in”.
“This means that beneath the surface there might be a rock that is called dolomite and when that rock gets wet it collapses and soil gets into its cavities and when that happens we will see a collapse and a sink hole happening,” he said.
According to Ramabitsa, who confirmed that the Namahadi site was officially opened in October last year, the environmental impact assessment of that burial site was conducted by a consultancy firm that was appointed by the Municipal Infrastructure Support Agent (Misa), which is part of the department of cooperative governance (Cogta).
“Cogta assists municipalities, especially when we are under section 139. So Misa, as part of Cogta, appointed the consultancy firm and after the firm filed a report and sent it to Misa we received the report, which stated that they were satisfied and happy with the land.”
Section 139 of the Constitution provides that when a municipality cannot or does not fulfil an executive obligation in terms of the Constitution or legislation, the provincial executive may intervene by taking any appropriate steps to ensure fulfilment of that obligation.
Ramabitsa explained that a meeting between the municipality and burial societies in the area took place on Thursday afternoon to allay fears that the site was not suitable for burial.
“What we did on Wednesday was that we went and assessed the site, where we found that there was another portion that was also suitable for burial as well. There were three graves that were dug and they were fine,” said Ramabitsa.
He said there were “35 or so graves at the grave site currently”.
“In the meantime, the municipality is also engaging Cogta in terms of possibly identifying another piece of land that is suitable for burial purposes in case this one gets full.”
“There wont be a need to exacerbate the situation. A series of meetings have been arranged to address misinformation and distortion so that the municipality provides facts.”