Life after death in the time of covid-19

The covid-19 pandemic, and corresponding health restrictions placed on hospitals and funerals in South Africa, have completely changed the way we grieve and say goodbye to our loved ones. 

“Standing there in the cemetery, looking at the deep holes all around me, I just remember being overwhelmed with anxiety,” recalled Margarida Khadhraoui about the day of her brother’s burial.

“They’re probably all filled now,” she reflected.

Khadhraoui, a 50-year-old mother of two young boys, is just one of the many South Africans who have experienced loss during the covid-19 lockdown period, which began in March. The nationwide lockdown was characterised by various health restrictions, with one being a ban on all hospital visitations to prevent new coronavirus infections. These health restrictions compromised people in different ways, but for many it affectedtheir last moments with their loved ones, along with their grieving process.

Lost final moments

The ban on hospital visitations remained throughout the duration of South Africa’s strictest levels of lockdown, being levels five, four and three. In August some hospitals began to allow visitations, with News 24 reporting that covid-19 patients at the “end of life” stages would be allowed visitors, but still in line with strict safety protocols.

Khadhraoui was not so lucky. Her brother, Alvaro Jose Oliveira Goncalves, passed away right before such exceptions were established, so she was unable to visit him before he died.

“The most difficult part of it all was that when my brother was admitted, we weren’t able to visit him. Usually when someone is ill, you go see them and it almost gives them that push to fight and carry on, but we couldn’t,” said Khadhraoui.

Khadhraoui remembered her brother having flu-like symptoms a few days before he was admitted to hospital, but he had not thought a covid-19 test was necessary. He assured Khadhraoui that he was fine and, because he had no pre-existing issues that would put him at a higher risk for covid-19, she let it go.

Early one Friday morning in late July, Khadhraoui received a distressed phone call from her sister-in-law, who exclaimed, “Margi, Alvaro can’t breathe!”

Khadhraoui told Wits Vuvuzela, “It was all so sudden. He had some symptoms, but he was fine, and then her couldn’t breathe two days later. We managed to get the paramedics to the house that morning.”

She added, “His oxygen level was at 56, which is really bad. Your normal level should sit at 94 or 95, so they immediately put him on oxygen and rushed him to the hospital.”

Goncalves was first diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia, which is an infection in the lungs caused by bacteria. It was later confirmed that he had tested positive for the coronavirus as well. Goncalves stayed in Linksfield Hospital for two weeks, and remained on a ventilator throughout.

The day before he passed, he was intubated and placed in an induced coma.

“I knew he wasn’t going to make it. I could feel it. I told my husband, ‘my brother’s leaving us,’ and I got the phone call 10 minutes later,” said Khadhraoui.

While rummaging through her bag for tissues to conceal tear-filled eyes, she said, “I couldn’t be there to hold his hand, tell him that I’m there for him or tell him to not be scared. I don’t think he necessarily needed it … I was the one that needed it.”

Stefanie Bove, a clinical psychologist of 16 years, explained that the covid-19 restrictions, and new circumstances created by the pandemic, will have an effect on the grieving process experienced by individuals who have lost loved ones.

“Grieving under these circumstances will definitely affect one’s general mental wellbeing, more so than usual. And the restrictions will play a role in the prolonged grieving process,” said Bove.

Bove, who consults for Saheti School in Senderwood and has her own private practice in the Bedfordview area, confirmed that she has had more people coming in for grief counselling than before the start of the pandemic.

Bove told Wits Vuvuzela, “I think that most grief now will result in complicated grief because there are so many new factors that have come into play. For example, not being able to have contact with loved ones or not really being able to say goodbye.”

Complicated grief refers to a prolonged grieving process, as described by Mayo Clinic, an American academic healthcare company. It is associated with, for example, difficulty in recovering from loss and resuming one’s normal life.

While psychologists may have different versions of what a normal grieving period is, Bove explained that a normal grieving period usually lasts three months. With the new circumstances created by the pandemic, however, Bove believes new factors have made it more complex and difficult to predict.

Khadhraoui recognised the covid-19 health restrictions, which prevented her from seeing her brother, as a big challenge for her.

“I needed that comfort,’’ she said. ‘‘I still struggle to come to terms with the fact that he is gone. And I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.”

Rushed goodbyes

Another area disrupted by the covid-19 pandemic and lockdown restrictions in South Africa was the funeral industry.

The health restrictions placed on funerals denied many South Africans control over the way in which they laid their loved ones to rest. Funerals play a big role in how we say goodbye to our loved ones and so, according to Bove, can also have implications on ones grieving process.

“Rituals are so important because it’s essentially saying goodbye officially. Covid has meant that those rituals are thwarted, resulting in an even deeper sense of loss of control, and death already has that effect,” said Bove.

In many religions, white candles are often lit during funerals or after someone has died, as a symbol of remembrance for the soul that has passed on and in order to strengthen prayers. Photo: Catia De Castro.

The first restrictions placed on funerals began before lockdown, on March 15, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national state of disaster. Restrictions included a limit of 50 attendants at funerals. When lockdown began, further restrictions were added to the government gazette, such as a one-hour limit on funeral services and a ban on night vigils.

South Africa is known for its cultural diversity and so naturally there are many different funeral rituals. Consequently, health restrictions have disrupted these rituals.

Nelisiwe Makaringe, a 19-year-old first-year student at the University of Johannesburg, studying public management and governance, was affected by these restrictions during her nephew’s funeral.

Makaringe and her nephew, Sifiso Mo’koena, were the same age and grew up together. She often referred to him as her brother when talking.  Mo’koena passed away suddenly in May from an unknown cause.

“He became really sick one day and started having cramps in his stomach, so he went to Thelle Mogoerane Hospital [in Vosloorus]. We still don’t know what his cause of death was because the hospital records say, ‘natural death’, but he was negative for covid,” said Makaringe.

Although Mo’koena did not pass away from the coronavirus, Makaringe disclosed that the family was still affected by the pandemic due to the funeral restrictions, as some of their African and Christian rituals were not allowed.

Makaringe told Wits Vuvuzela, “With African homes, the deceased usually comes home in the casket a day before and stays overnight at the home. We then have the funeral and memorial the next morning, and afterwards people usually cook and have a celebration. We weren’t able to do any of that.”

Makaringe said the inability to bury Mo’koena the way they had hoped to, had an impact on the way she and her family have grieved.

“The funeral was so rushed. We weren’t even able to have a memorial service. How can you have a funeral in one hour?” exclaimed Makaringe, an air of frustration in her voice.

“I was very close to him and I feel like I wasn’t able to say goodbye. We weren’t able to grieve properly.”

“Afterwards, I felt like he hadn’t died,” Makaringe added.

Funeral home workers have been on the front lines during the lockdown, so they have witnessed the way in which families have been affected by funeral restrictions.

Willem Schuwte, an assistant manager at AVBOB Funeral Parlour for the Johannesburg Central Business District branch, has been involved in funeral arrangements during the lockdown period and has had to interact with, and assist, families throughout.

AVBOB is one of the few funeral parlours that offer grief counselling to the families they assist.

Schuwte told Wits Vuvuzela, “A lot more people have requested [grieving counsellors] during lockdown. I definitely think that families have been affected by these restrictions.”

Dealing with families during this time has been extremely challenging for Schuwte due to the families’ reluctance to accept the new health restrictions. Schuwte explained that the body should go straight from the mortuary to the grave site, as outlined by covid-19 health regulations in South Africa.

“[The new process] doesn’t fit in with some beliefs, and families don’t always understand or want to comply when they are told that their loved one can’t be transported or buried the way they want,” said Schuwte.

Bove reiterated the importance of funerals in relation to grief. She said, “When you’re not given a chance to attend or pay your last respects correctly, it complicates the grieving process.”


Technology: A saving grace

Technology has proved to be helpful in many ways amid the pandemic. One such way has been through the ability to livestream funerals when family members or friends have been unable to attend.

Schuwte has seen many families utilise technology to livestream funerals via Zoom, Facebook and other online platforms. He said, “A lot of families have been livestreaming. It’s become the new norm, and I think it’s a trend that’s going to stick around.”

Livestreaming funerals has not only provided a way for those who cannot attend to say goodbye to their loved one, but has also eliminated the high risk of being exposed to the coronavirus when attending physically.

The high risk of funeral gatherings has been continuously seen throughout the lockdown period in South Africa. During the initial level-five lockdown period, three funerals in Eastern Cape accounted for more than 200 covid-19 cases, as reported by News 24.

Sumentha Naidoo, a 45-year-old mother of three and logistics manager at Whirlpool (a home appliances company), personally experienced the benefits of technology when she was able to attend her uncle’s funeral online.

Naidoo’s 71-year-old uncle passed away from the coronavirus in August. He had previously attended a family member’s funeral and his family believes he was exposed to the virus there. Due to the unfortunate circumstances, the family decided it would be best to have the funeral via Zoom.

“The family did it over Zoom because they didn’t want to put anyone in that position, especially since my uncle had gotten the virus from a funeral,” Naidoo told Wits Vuvuzela.

She added, “We would’ve been scared too, because we (Naidoo, her husband and children) had just recovered from the virus ourselves.”

Sumentha Naidoo acknowledged the difficultly of not having, or being able to give, physical comfort following the death of a loved one during the national lockdown in South Africa. Pictured: Sumentha Naidoo and husband, Jogi Naidoo. Photo: Catia De Castro

Naidoo explained that, although technology had been extremely useful, she wished there was no need for it, as physical support and comfort are important when grieving.

“With Christians, but especially in our Indian culture, friends and family come together the very same night someone dies. There are always people around, and that support is so important. The family was missing that embrace of a loved one, and it’s a big part of mourning,” said Naidoo.

Bove highlighted the way covid-19 restrictions have changed the expected behaviour at funerals and prevented people from conveying compassion during the sensitive period after loss.

“Social distancing makes it so difficult when you’re not able to extend normal gestures of love and care. And even afterwards, there’s no celebration. This could all prolong the normal grieving process,” said Bove.

Many South Africans have experienced loss under the already stressful context of the global pandemic, but all have been unique in their own personal way.

Khadhraoui struggled to hold back tears and subtly wiped her nose as she described her experience.

Tearfully she said, “We were only a year apart but, being the oldest, I was almost like a mother to him. Whenever there was a crisis, he knew, ‘Margi will fix it’. I felt like it was my responsibility to look after him, and I couldn’t even be there to hold his hand.”

FEATURED IMAGE: The Braamfontein Cemetary in Johannesburg remained quiet over the weekend of October 31, despite the rise in deaths during the covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Catia De Castro.


The Evolution of the Spoken Word

Even during the apartheid years Yeoville was a place of freedom when it came to music and poetry. Today, it continues to be a free space for the power and importance of expressing anger, pain, loss and love.

Young artists dedicate their time to reflecting their feelings about everyday social issues. They make their music real and hope to take the young generation of Yeoville out of the streets that are growing with criminal activity as well as drug and alcohol abuse.

BROMANCE: Rhythmic poets of Yeoville (l to r), Bukhosi Mncube and Mkhululi Thabetha have been friends for six years and they’ve grown closer through a passion for music and poetry. Photo: Lutho Mtongana

Twenty-year-old Mkhululi Michael Thabetha started writing poetry and rap in 2009 when his older brother was shot dead on the streets of Yeoville. His brother was 26 and worked as a security guard in a local shop. He was shot in the leg and heart by a robber who subsequently shot himself through the head.
Writing poetry and music was Thabetha’s way of expressing himself and the anger he felt after his brother’s death. The anger was fuelled by the fact that the killing of his brother was never properly resolved. Thabetha said he did not believe it was an ordinary robbery because a robber would surely have tried to escape.
Known by his artist name MK-47, Thabetha is tall and thin. He wears oversized pants and jerseys which slouch on him when he walks. He fidgets constantly and, every five minutes, lights another cigarette. He struggles to make eye contact and when he does, it is to say, “Can we not talk about that please?” particularly when asked about his mother.

Originally, Thabetha wanted to be a DJ but his brother wanted him to finish school first. After his brother’s death, Thabetha abused cocaine and alcohol, dropped out of school and rebelled against his mother. In 2012 he spent time in a rehabilitation centre, but has picked up poetry and rap again this year, inspired still by the memory of his brother’s death.

Thabetha is not the only teenager who has lost a relative because of crime on Yeoville streets. And many express their loss by turning it into music or poetry. They want to express how they feel about their community and the problems they and their contemporaries face. Some see the spoken word as a tool to address the personal and the social issues in their community, while for others it is a way of releasing the pain and distress. Often it’s a combination of the two.

The history of protest poetry

Words boomed through Yeoville as far back as the ’80s and ’90s but, in those days, the verses were less about alcohol and self-identification, and more about anger over oppression. Poetry and music were the platform to express their discontent with the system:
“No state power shall legislate me not to love man, do something to facilitate change in Africa, do something to flee the doors of Pollsmoor, Robben Island prison open. Do something favourable for the exiles to return home. Oh Africa let all this be done before dawn. Oh peace loving South Africans let it be done before dawn.”

The Day Shall Dawn by Mzwakhe Mbuli was first published in 1986. Mbuli used to spend time in Yeoville, though he did not live there. Yeoville was one of the few areas where artists of all colours could express themselves without much fear of apartheid laws. His poem is an example of protest poetry, produced when Nelson Mandela and many activists fighting apartheid were imprisoned.

Mashudu Churchill Mashige, professor in the school of applied languages at Tshwane University of Technology, has written essays on African Renaissance and on culture, identity and politics. In Politics and Aesthetics in Contemporary Black South African Poetry, published in 1996, he said: “Protest and resistance poetry was amongst other things poetry which is against repressive police activity, the squalor of urban slums, the indignities of migrant labour systems and of passes and the more absurd feature of racial classification.”

Junior Sokhela’s rise to fame

Musician, music, TV and film producer Junior Sokhela produced resistance poetry and music during and post-apartheid. A short, Zulu-speaking man, he has a deep voice and thick dreadlocks beneath a black beanie. Sokhela stops and greets people on the Yeoville streets with a smile. His mini catch-ups always last a minute or two.
“My granny used to tell me to humble myself. What you are and what you do is not mine. It’s a gift from God not to use it against people but to use it to help and advance other people as well.” He now helps other artists in Yeoville and Johannesburg to get their music careers going. Sokhela believes one of the major challenges new artists face is remaining the same grounded people they were before they got into the industry. That is one of the reasons he works with Yeoville artists: to help their transition to fame without losing their sense of self. “Artists struggle a lot with that – not being able to handle the fame and the attention. [People] use the attention to gain things [they] did not gain when [they] were young.”

Sokhela started writing protest poetry and songs as a teenager, drawing his inspiration from the protest poets and artists of his time. When he was 16, Cape Town hip-hoppers Prophets of Da City (POC) recruited him and his close friend Ishmael Morabe into the group after seeing the number of people they attracted on the streets and in the clubs of Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville.
From the age of 14, Sokhela and Morabe had captured the crowds with their unique way of dancing and singing, and through the words and lyrics. They spoke about the political situation, mentioning activists such as Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko.
In his essay, Mashige says artists aim to mirror the circumstances they have been going through in their neighbourhoods. “These circumstances are largely shaped and instructed by the political decisions enforced in the communities which these poets are part of.” Sokhela and Morabe were no different.

Yeoville in the ’80s

At the time of their street performances in the ’80s, Yeoville was a different place. It had a bohemian culture and was the only Johannesburg community where black and white South Africans mixed and lived together openly – despite apartheid laws. Yeoville was originally a white area but, because of the culture of music and poetry, black artists flooded Berea, Hillbrow and Yeoville, where there was the possibility of late-night poetry sessions and music concerts.
William Dewar, co-author of the book Yeoville, a Walk through Time, says: “Many musicians of the time identified themselves as being above the racial segregation of apartheid. It may have been that they were united by a common language of music.” Famous Yeoville artists were Oswald Mtshali, Sinclair Beiles, Lesego Ramopolokeng and Mbuli and all these artists were united by their music and poetry and their resistance to a racist South Africa.

Sokhela and Morabe started performing in concerts and local clubs and restaurants with the POC. One of the main hubs was Yeoville’s still-buzzing Rockey Street. With its street lights, music, poetry, restaurants, nightclubs and residential flats, this was (and still is) the beating heart of Yeoville.
Dewar writes: “People feel safe at night in a place that is small, active and well lit and has an array of activities such as bars, clubs, restaurants etc.” The House of Tandoor was one of the places to be. It was and still is a place for Rastafarians, a place where people can sit on the open rooftop and enjoy a legal or semi-legal smoke in the open air.
Sokhela and Morabe started travelling with POC to Switzerland for the Montreux Jazz Festival and to concerts in London. “My grandmother was used to me being away from home for months. We were gone for six months for my first tour, but she was never worried, as long as I was still alive,” he said. “No one at home knew that I had gone out of the country. All the paperwork was taken care of by my boss, [Lance Stehr].”
Late 1993, Sokhelo recorded the song It’s About Time under the name Boom Shaka and gave the demo to Oskido and DJ Christos to work on and release it. “I had recorded Boom Shaka on the side with Lebo Mathosa and I never told my boss about it. Only Ismael knew.”
On tour with POC, Sokhela had no clue that Boom Shaka was gaining recognition in South Africa. “There were rumours that Boom Shaka was a band from London or somewhere foreign,” he said. No one knew who they were when Boom Shaka was asked to perform for the first time at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994. Producers Oskido and DJ Christos asked the entertainment manager to put Boom Shaka on the line-up after the song became a hit.
While Prophets of the City went to Cape Town for a concert, Sokhela and Morabe remained in Pretoria for the inauguration. They received an overwhelming response. “It was my first time [that] my family, who have never thought being an artist was a job, saw me on TV and started believing in me,” Sokhele said. “My boss was so angry but I did not care, I had already decided to leave POC and start concentrating on Boom Shaka.”
Boom Shaka’s popularity grew rapidly.

No one could define their music, it was something new. “There were elements of reggae, kwaito, hip-hop and maskhandi in our music,” Sokhela said. It was truly Yeoville and multicultural. Some of their songs and music videos were banned because they were political. In one dance video, the group took a picture of PW Botha and placed it inside a refrigerator, to show that he should “chill”.
They named other apartheid figures such as Eugene de Kock, who was an apartheid assassin. The video was never released. It was 1994 and South Africa was just beginning to come out as a newly democratic and united country. The video was seen as going against the ideal notion of a united nation.

WATSUP: Mkhululi Thabetha aka MK-47 greets the Club 28 DJ on arrival to perform at the popular nightclub’s opening act. Photo: Lutho Mtongana

The rise of rhythmic poetry 

Since the end of apartheid, Yeoville has changed. There has been an influx of other nationals and most whites branched out of Yeoville when the space became crowded and crime increased. Despite the fact that different races no longer enjoy poetry and music there together, it still remains a place with “vibrant street life, cosmopolitan community, metropolitan centre, cultural activity and intimate community”, says Dewar.
The African community is now the largest and the area remains multicultural, multinational and filled with both the rich and the less fortunate. Very different from other parts of Johannesburg, Yeoville is a small version of Africa: “I could reach a Namibian guy, from just being in Yeoville … We have fans from every single country represented in Yeoville. So it’s easier for me to reach out to their countries,” Sokhela said.
Protest poetry became less popular after South Africa became a democracy. Around 1998 rhythmic poetry gained popularity. Artists such as Brenda Fassie started producing lyrics that reflected back on the apartheid era. Sokhela worked closely with Fassie, who stayed in nearby Hillbrow for a number of years and spent much of her time in Yeoville.
“Bangitholile (memeza ma, memeza ma) They found me (calling out with an outcry)
Abanganaxolo (memeza ma, memeza ma) Those who do not have forgiveness
Bangikhomba (memeza ma, memeza ma) They pointed at me
Ngezibhamu nemikhontho (memeza ma, memeza ma) With guns and spears”

This is from Fassie’s Memeza, released in 1998. It shows how artists switched from addressing the oppressive apartheid regime to expressing their sad memories of those days.

KEEP THE MEMORY: Thabetha shares a story about his older brother getting shot and killed while he was working as a security guard. The tombstone tattoo on his left arm is to keep his memory alive. He has six tattoos in total but this one is the meaningful one. Photo: Lutho Mtongana

“We are targeting the grassroots, the people themselves, because those are the people that are [still] affected by the same system [apartheid],” said Sokhela. Rhythmic poetry was like musical poetry, he said. Artists were expressing themselves more creatively to make a louder noise and a bigger impact.
Artists who started out as poets incorporated other forms of art to their work: drums, beats, melody, rhythm, dance and music. Poetry became too narrow and the poets branched out. They became rappers, writers, dancers, singers, musicians. Yeoville artists such as Thandiswa Mazwai and Oscar Appleseed from the kwaito group Bongo Maffin and Simphiwe Dana are some of the artists who grew to incorporate melody and drums in their work.
When Boom Shaka stopped recording after four albums because of financial problems with their record label, Sokhela decided to help upcoming artists struggling in the industry. As a music producer with 20 years of experience in the industry, he assisted many successful artists such as Lebo Mathose, Thembi Seete and Molemo Maarohanye, otherwise known as Jub Jub.
“I have been in the industry for a long time and what I have noticed is that many of these kids struggle with adjusting to the fame and they don’t know how to handle the social issues at home and those experienced by their peers,” Sokhelo said. “Some lack empowerment.”

HIP HOPPERS: The boys share their personal experiences of life in Yeoville. Photo: Lutho Mtongana

He has worked in Yeoville for the past 10 years and still occasionally goes to Tandoor to look for new talent and to help the upcoming artists in Yeoville make a better future for themselves.
Thabetha has not yet worked with Sokhela. He said he felt uncomfortable sharing his personal work with anyone but his small circle of rapping and poetic friends, since he was just starting out again after a long break. However, he shared a small verse unrelated to his brother’s death. It speaks of his beliefs and his protection by God. He said the song was about evil trying to follow him, but being unable to get him. He was still standing today, he said, because he escaped it through God’s protection.
“I’m talking about the son of men,
Son of trinity, bathi, [they say] egameni likayise nelonyana nelo moya oyingcwele, [In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit] ndaguqa ngamadolo ndabheka eMpumalanga, bathi [I went down on my knees and prayed before I went to Mpumalanga] abathakathi befikile izolo ebusuku. But I escaped that shit, [the witches came last night] they couldn’t touch me, I’m still standing.”

Thabetha has a tattoo on his left arm of a tombstone, in memory of his brother. The tombstone reads RIP John 13, Rest in Peace John, which was his brother’s name. The 13th is the day he died. His family could not afford a tombstone so he tattooed one on his arm in respect and in memory of him. Thabetha continues to write poetry.

He said he hoped to be the modern Shakespeare, writing meaningful verses which would inspire the younger generation to think, to question and to be conscious of everyday politics.

Young men in Yeoville find support through rap and each other.

Young men in Yeoville find support through rap and each other. By: Lutho Mtongana

FEATURED IMAGE: Rhythmic poets of Yeoville (l to r), Bukhosi Mncube and Mkhululi Thabetha have been friends for six years and they’ve grown closer through a passion for music and poetry. Photo: Lutho Mtongana


SCIENCE INSIDE: The science of Mandela’s death

On the 5th of December 2013 the father of our nation, Nelson Mandela, died at his home. When the world heard – they mourned. And in South Africa for ten days his body was kept preserved so we could say our goodbyes to his remains in person until he was buried on December 15.

This week’s episode of the weekly The Science Inside show looks at how science influenced the 10 day stretch that every South African will remember – first, what is the psychology of human grief, then how have our burial practices evolved since mummification and what is the chemistry behind keeping a body preserved for ten days in the South African summer heat?

Listen to the full podcast here to gain a deeper understanding into what those ten days signified in a uniquely South African context.