Although this article by Nokuzola Mndende in IOL News centers on the family feud over the bones of the deceased children of Nelson Mandela, the information about African culture, family structure, clans and traditional religion is so fascinating I’ve post it in its entirety:
The family feud over the bones of the deceased children of Nelson Mandela has raised many questions about the status of African culture and indigenous spirituality. In fact this public spat is not only an embarrassment to the Mandela family and abaThembu in general, it is also a bad reflection on the status of African culture. Speaking about individual rights to decide where the deceased should be buried is new in African culture and is based on arrogance and male chauvinism. In fact it is an imported version of western democracy imposed over African culture, as decisions about custom and tradition are made by the family collective. Family in African culture does not refer to the nuclear family as portrayed by the west; by family it means all those who are unified by blood irrespective of gender. Each member has a specific role to play so that the clan remains solid. The language used in the debates is also crucial as no one should speak in the first person singular (“my grandfather”). Madiba is a grandfather to many, no individual owns Madiba – he is the father to Makaziwe, Zenani, Zindzi; and a grandfather to their children including those of his deceased children. One must understand that no children born within the family should be discriminated against, whether they are born of sons or daughters. It is during certain cultural and social responsibilities that duties are allocated according to birthright, but all those decisions are controlled by the family. If any person abuses their responsibilities, it is also the responsibility of the family to remove that person and replace them with another on whom they agree. The drama of the exhuming of bones by an individual from Qunu to Mvezo, and re-exhuming them to move them back to Qunu, poses some spiritual problems regarding the traditions of African culture, as the belief in “bones” is a basic cornerstone of Africans’ lives. In African culture death does not mean the destruction of life. It marks the physical separation of the individual from this physical life and the joining of their soul with the spiritual world of ancestors. This transition of the soul from this world to another world is reflected in the metaphors used when somebody has passed on which symbolise that life is not destroyed but is somewhere. It is said that the person: – Uhambile: Has left. – Usishiyile: Has left us. – Akasekho: Is not around around us but is somewhere else. – Uswelekile: Is scarce. Bones of the deceased are treated with respect and are believed to represent an immortal soul. Because of their immortal nature, bones are believed to have an ability to speak (ayathetha), hear (ayeva) when someone is speaking to them and see (ayabona). When members of the family invoke ancestors they refer to them as the bones who are able to move (ayashukuma). Ukushukuma (literally meaning shaking, moving or vibrating) of bones means that they are responding to whatever situation needs their intervention or response. Because of these features, it is believed that ancestors (the bones) can reward, heal, protect and punish the living. Ancestors, which are central in African beliefs, are symbolised by the bones that are “sleeping” peacefully. Disturbing the “bones” is not allowed as that implies disturbing the soul of the deceased. So when someone dies far from home, the family of the deceased performs a ritual of spiritually bringing them home. Using the branches of a special tree called umphafa as a spiritual medium, the family members take their spirit home. They speak to them over their grave and tell them the reasons for these actions. But in extreme cases, like when the deceased wants their remains to be taken “home”, or the family want to know where the “bones” of their loved one are “sleeping”, the family exhume the bones – but this is a collective decision. Though am not a Mandela, I am an African who practises African culture and spirituality. I think the Mandela elderly should further educate the chief, as some of his statements are not correct. His exclusion of his uDadobawo (father’s sister – not aunt) is a mistake. He said that because she is married she must not be involved with the Mandela issues. That is a grave mistake. Makaziwe is an umfazi (married woman) to her husband’s family; but she is an intombi (daughter) to the Mandela family. She has specific roles to play. Makaziwe, as the only surviving child of Madiba’s first marriage, has the right to intervene when she sees something going astray. Makaziwe, Ndaba and Mandla should complement each other as there are many things they must do as a collective. What Mandla has said in public about his Dadobawo is disrespectful. His statement is based on arrogance, male chauvinism and denial of the truth about the status of Makaziwe, his father’s sibling. Makaziwe is Mandla’s father, in the true sense of the word, without looking at her gender. Mandla also said he had the right to determine where his father should be buried. Again this is far from the truth. Makgatho has a father, siblings, and children who are Mandla’s siblings. There is no way that an individual can claim the absolute right for somebody who is shared by many. Moreover, Ndaba needs to take the lead despite being younger than Mandla. An heir to traditional leadership in African culture depends on the status of his mother. As Ndaba’s mother was married to Makgatho, Ndaba should lead the traditions and customs of Rholihlahla’s house. Though Mandla is older, Ndaba qualifies to be given umkhonto (a sacred spear) to kill the sacred animals during their rituals. It is therefore out of line for Mandla to unilaterally exhume the bones. Makaziwe in fact is the one who is closely attached to those bones as they all came from the same womb. Finally the Mandela family must go to Madiba and tell him that the bones have been returned to Qunu, and that he will be buried next to his children, so that he can go peacefully. They must also perform a ritual to apologise to the bones that have been so disturbed, so as to avoid their wrath.
Mndende is the founder of the Dutywa-based Icamagu Institute in the Eastern Cape and a former religious studies lecturer at the University of Cape Town.