When a family member dies, they are honoured in different ways in various South African cultures.
Some will shave their heads, other cultures would bury their loved ones immediately while some would observe a week of mourning before sending them off with a ceremony filled with family and friends.
In some Black cultures, when someone dies, the family sits on a mattress from the time they hear the news until the burial as neighbours, friends pay their respect.
For this Mpumalanga family, one week of mourning turned into weeks and months as they waited for their loved one's DNA to be confirmed after four members died in an accident on their way from Johasburg to Mpumalanga.
Doctor, Nelisiwe, Gcinile, and Asande Nkosi were going to visit their family on 5 December when they were involved in an accident.
Their bodies were burnt in the accident. The family says they weren’t allowed to identify the bodies and they were on a long list of the people who were waiting for DNA results. They couldn't start preparing for the funeral until the bodies were released.
Thembelihle Nkosi - who lost three of her siblings - older brother Doctor, two younger sisters Nelisiwe and Gcinile, and her niece Asande, says nothing prepares one for losing a family member and when it is four at a time, it is hard to make sense of what her family is going through.
“It is weird to do an interview about my siblings and speak about it in the past tense. We were so close, and their death left us shuttered but the mourning period almost broke us as a family.”
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She tells Drum that her brother was working at Joburg and the two sisters were staying with him. They used to visit home every month. She says they were happy when they got the news that the family was on their way home and they updated them when they left Joburg.
“We spoke on the phone and the next minute there was no communication. We were worried because we knew that they were coming. We went to the police station to report them missing, but also, we saw on the news that there was an accident in our town, we live in the rural areas of Mpumalanga. We learned that there were four people involved in a car accident 25 kilometers from home, but they were burned so they couldn’t be identified. The car was my brother’s car, I don’t know the model, but I saw it. We were informed that they will do DNA tests and revert to us while waiting we had to put the mattress and light the candle.”
She says they didn’t anticipate that the tests would take long, but when they heard that were number 406 on the list and were told that they might only be able to bury their family members in September 2023, they kept the mattress down as it is done in their culture.
She says mattress and candles are their way of showing that they are in mourning, and the candle must be on for 24 hours until the body of the deceased arrives at home.
“All this time we spent sitting on the mattress because we believe that when we haven’t held a funeral, we are not supposed to use the bed. My mother and my brother’s wife were sitting on the mattress whilst we waited. We also lit the candles, and we were still going to have the mattress down even if the process took the whole year, this is how we do things in our culture.”
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It was almost three full months of not being able to bury our family members. The accident happened in December and they recently buried their family members on 20 March.
"We wouldn’t have survived until September because it was painful.
“The person who helped us bury on 20 March was Dr. Nkululeko Khanyi, who inquired. He told us that when he got to the lab they haven’t started with our DNA because the list was long. We believe as a family we would’ve been able to identify them, but we were not [allowed as] the law believed that DNA had to be done before we can claim the bodies.”
Thembelihle tells Drum that now that the funeral is out of the way, they can start with the healing process.
Dr Nkululeko Khanyi says the Nkosi story touched him because no one is supposed to sit on the mattress for that long, it might cause more damage.
“In African families, we sit on the mattress and people come in to share their condolences. A week of getting people's condolences is enough and people need to move from that state and start healing from the pain. I couldn’t allow myself to watch people in pain for that long. I had to do something and with a help of other people I can’t name, I was able to get them to bury their family members and now they can move from that dark space. It still hurts for them but at least now they laid them to their final resting place.”