The politics of black death and commemoration

HOMAGE: Deputy Minister in the Presidency Buti Manamela laying a wreath at Solomon Kalushi Mahlangus grave in Mamelodi yesterday. Picture: Bongani Shilubane

It is true that a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of entire lifetimes. One minute you’re alive, blissfully unaware of your mortality. The next minute your gasping for air, fighting to keep your spirit and body together. Each breath you take, imbued with new meaning – you’re fighting for your life. In the words of Toni Morrisson, it is not death nor dying itself that is particularly frightening – but the unexpectedness of both.

 I can’t imagine how Sindiso Magaqa felt in the confusion and crippling fear that characterized the moment after he had been shot fifteen times during an assassination attempt which happened late July, in Umzimkulu. I can imagine the shock experienced by the witnesses and those who had been attacked but remained consciousness moments after. One might have hoped that the death of political leaders on the name of virtues and pure political ideals was a thing of the post. This is how we lost Chris Hani. Another one bites the dust, in a bitter protracted war for political power and the spoils of war.

 The praise has been laid on thickly over the past few months. He was a mighty soldier. He stood up for what was right. He did for standing up to corruption. It seems the wages of being an upright man or woman in the current chaotic political terrain is death. In a time where our current administration claims to be committed to rooting out corruption, this is a devastating revelation. It means the status quo of impunity and plundering of state resources could remain firmly in place as dissident and whistleblowers are taken out.

 Solomon Mahlangu, in his final moments, famously said,”My blood will nourish the Tree that will Bear the Fruits of Freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight.” Mahlangu, a trained soldier under the military wing of the African National Congress, Umkhonto WeSizwe left South Africa after the Soweto Uprising of 1976 when he was 19 years old. While he was away, he was chosen as part of a group of cadres who would return to South Africa to carry out a mission commemorating the June 16 1976 Soweto Student Uprising. After gaining entry to South Africa for the said ceremony, through Swaziland, and meeting his fellow comrades on the East Rand, they were accosted by police in Goch Street in Johannesburg. This set the wheels in motion for his untimely death.

 We often valourise the death of Hani, Mahlangu and now too, the death of Magaqa. What a remarkable group of people they must have been to have a set of ideals for which they were prepared to die. We erect memorials in their honour, engage sorrowful reminiscences and wear their images on our chest and create martyrs out of them. I dare say, #BlackLivesMatter. Not some of the time, but all the time. I don’t want to run the risk of conflating the context from which this powerful hashtag arose, but it’s important for us to interrupt the idea that we must give our lives in exchange for any form of justice. We must interrupt the idea that in order to turn the world right side up someone must pay with their lives. I am growing increasingly impatient with a world that demands that we lay down our lives in order to prove a point, and to see justice play out. Because if I am not alive to see that justice come into being then what was the point? What was it for? We’ve had too many sacrificial lambs go to slaughter, and at some point, we must draw a line in the sand and ask: How many more are needed to appease the beast?

 We are intrinsically worthy of human life. If I were Mahlangu or Magaqa on the eve of my death, I would want to emphasis the need for ceasefire. The world is already a hard place. We must find better to express our discontent with each other. It is the words of James Baldwin that ring true for me in this regard – “We must do what we can, and fortify and save each other. If they take you in the morning, they be coming for us in the night.”

 Anele Nzimande is a law student at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg with a passion for activism, writing and business