If you discount the mass funerals necessitated by the recent floods, the one of the young people who died at Enyobeni Tavern in East London recently, was going to be one of the biggest and most memorable in years.
It was going to be reminiscent of the Boipatong, Sebokeng and Shobashobane mass funerals of the 1990s.
While the three mass funerals were the end result of bullets and pangas, the funeral in East London this week was the end result of something that went wrong at a tavern where 21 youngsters were killed mysteriously.
To this day there is still intrigue surrounding the case. It was because of its mysterious nature, and the public call for government “to do something” that President Cyril Ramaphosa felt impelled to go to the Eastern Cape and mourn alongside the bereaved families.
The nation watched on TV as cameras zoomed in on 19 gleaming caskets.
Poems were recited. Dirges were sung. Bells were rung. Speeches were delivered. And, yes, the speeches were political. In fact, for all intents and purposes, it was a political funeral.
A mass funeral is a uniquely South African phenomenon, rooted in our blood-spattered history. Some of massacres that gave rise to memorable mass funerals were Sharpeville 1960. Soweto 1976. Trust Feed 1988. Sebokeng 1990. Boipatong 1992. Bisho 1992. Shobashobane 1995.
READ: Enyobeni tavern was 'built illegally' - and had violated trading hours, municipality says
My sense is that mass funerals were held by black communities at the height of apartheid as an act of defiance against a repressive government – to show that black people were unified and defiant right to the grave.
Mass funerals were used as rallying points for the community. People gave succour to the bereaved families, and gave inspiration to each other to fight on, especially because those lying inside those coffins would have been victims of the apartheid regime’s bullets.
Because many political leaders were under surveillance by government, the only time they could interact with their followers, and the only time they could articulate themselves publicly to the media, was at these mass funerals.
Against this background, therefore, I fully understood why Ramaphosa was at the funeral. Here’s a president under siege politically since the explosion of the Phala Phala scandal, and more recently, a high court pronouncement that he should face censure, or even pay billions of rands, for his role in the Marikana massacre.
What does he do to show that he is unfazed and still “in control”? He makes a grand appearance at a mass funeral. Ostensibly he was there to give support to the families of the deceased.
If police officers and liquor industry officials in East London had done their jobs properly, these young people probably would not have died. They died because of a systemic problem: lack of policing and a laissez-faire attitude of liquor board authorities when it comes to the granting of licences, and the enforcement of all the rules and regulations relating to the sale and distribution of alcohol. The youngest of those who died at the tavern was 13.
To this day, it’s not even clear what killed them. Some say there were poisonous fumes at the establishment. Others speculate that it could have been the hubbly bubblies being puffed there.
What is clear, though, is that the establishment was not up to standard, and there were no checks on the ages of those allowed into the premises, as should have been.
So, Ramaphosa was there in East London, one supposes, to say: “This cannot happen under my watch.”
He was there to say: “Leave this to me, I’m still in charge and I’m going to deal with it.”
He was there to say: “Don’t believe all the rumours about me. I am a president who cares. I am president who listens. That is why I am here. Our sincerest condolences to the bereaved families.”
Imagine the shock and the horror, then, when we learnt that it was all a charade. The coffins were empty!
Some of the kids had already been buried, while others were expected to be buried later. But none were to be buried on the day that had been slated as the day of Enyobeni mass funeral. Not a single one of them.
Some of the families told the media they had not been consulted, and were therefore shocked to learn that Ramaphosa was in town for the funeral. It was one of the crassest displays of political chicanery and insensitivity.
Ramaphosa’s people would have told him that a mass funeral was impossible as some families insisted on their privacy, which would allow them to bury their loved ones according to their customs and traditions specific to each family. Armed with this intelligence, the president’s people would have advised him to seek another way of showing solidarity with the families.
A simple memorial, without the coffins, would have sufficed. It would have given Ramaphosa the platform that he clearly craved to show that he was still standing, that he was a caring president, that he would set in motion a process that would ensure the miscreants were punished.
This whole thing reeks of dirty money. Given the past behaviour of politicians, it is easy to surmise that some government funds would already have been made available for the purchase of those coffins, the hiring of the venue and sound system.
The comrades in charge of that process would have been loathe to cancel the purchase orders, because the cancellation would have hit them in the pocket.
To be fair, this is not reportage. This is speculation. And, yes, I am willing to be challenged on my wild speculation.
As a South African journalist I have learnt over the years that what might be considered “wild” in other countries, is perfectly “normal” here. In this country, we normalise the bizarre.
READ: WATCH | Inside Enyobeni tavern, where carefree teens partied until tragedy struck
This is a country run by politicians who steal from the mouths of children; politicians who rob Covid-19 victims of their grants, politicians who steal from the victims of floods, politicians who create ghost employees whose “identities” are used to siphon public funds.
It is not an exaggeration to see this so-called mass funeral as the act of a desperate politician shedding crocodile tears.
Watch those tears plopping drop by insincere drop on empty coffins.