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Tending the graves in Avalon Cemetery amid robberies, e...

South Africa

THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT

Tending the graves in Avalon Cemetery amid robberies, emotional turmoil and Covid-19

Avalon Cemetery in Soweto. The cemetery is the largest in South Africa. It was opened in 1972, during the height of apartheid, as a graveyard for black people. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

Ronald Maluleke has been keeping the dead company for almost two decades. He started working as a volunteer at the Avalon Cemetery in Soweto in 2002, and a garden spade is the tool of his trade.

Ronald Maluleke and a group of other men at Soweto’s Avalon Cemetery help the families of the dead clean their loved ones’ graves for a negotiable fee. But his work goes beyond just cleaning graves. Maluleke said he often has to join families on their emotional journeys on visits to the cemetery.

His services also come in handy for families who cannot identify their loved ones’ graves. He knows every inch of the cemetery and can identify graves even when the tags are missing, a job that would ordinarily be the task of Johannesburg City Parks’ employees. People who make visits on weekends often need help, but there are usually no staff to help them. 

“But we are always at hand to assist,” said Maluleke.

He is well aware that he and his colleagues do their voluntary work at the cemetery at huge risk to their lives, not only because of potential exposure to Covid-19, but also because gun-toting criminals have made an enterprise out of robbing visiting families. He has personally witnessed countless robberies and has been able to foil many.

“I have been here for a very long time. It’s easy for me to spot visitors with ulterior motives as some might even carry garden spades and pretend to be one of us, while others come armed, rob people and run. We warn the families,” said Maluleke.

He told Daily Maverick he knows every section of the cemetery and added that crime had declined slightly during the pandemic. He knows all the crime hotspots at the cemetery, most of them near where the perimeter fence has been breached.

In one of the robberies he witnessed, a mortuary worker was shot dead. He said visitors assume they are safe because they see the security guards at the gate, but the area is so vast that the guards might not be aware of what is happening elsewhere.

The Avalon Cemetery is renowned for being the resting place of some of South Africa’s greats, including prominent politicians, soccer players and musicians. Some of the notable graves are those of Hector Pieterson, Joe Slovo, Helen Joseph and Lilian Ngoyi.

Maluleke said he and his colleagues are not just there to get money from the families, but were fully aware that the families require emotional support. “Visitors who work during the week normally have it hard on weekends when we are also not here because the office closes.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major financial impact on Maluleke and his colleagues. “We had people coming here daily, some fortnightly and so on, [but] not any more. People are not visiting as frequently as they did pre-Covid-19.” 

Maluleke and his colleagues, who do not have personal protective equipment, except for masks, also face the threat of Covid-19. 

On his “hustle”, as he calls it, Maluleke said it was not a matter of choice for him, but the only thing he could do to prevent his family from starving. He stays in a tiny one-room shack in Protea South in Soweto with his wife and three daughters.

Despite his long voluntary service, he admits that his hustle has taken an emotional toll. But he had no choice. “It’s this or sitting at home and folding my hands.”

Maluleke works so closely with families at the cemetery that the outpouring of grief at the graveside affects him directly as if he were a family member.

He has been submitting his CV to City Parks for years, hoping that his 19 years in the industry would count for something. The last time he submitted a CV was in 2020, but he never received a response, not even a rejection. He begged City Parks to consider absorbing the group of men because some were very experienced and could be an asset to the organisation. He is a qualified forklift driver but has struggled to find work.

Johannesburg City Parks spokesperson Reggie Moloi told Daily Maverick that it was not true that the city was not absorbing workers from the pool of people volunteering their services. 

“In 2019 we absorbed about 16 of them. There was one guy who refused,” Moloi said. “We absorb them from the people that are there digging the graves. 

“What we don’t want is to outsource people that we don’t know. Those people are not working for the city, they are there to benefit themselves, and sometimes they cause us problems.”

In response, Maluleke said, “I can safely say to him that some of us long-term volunteers have simply been ignored. However, this will not change our commitment to create an impression and ensure the safety and comfort of the families who appreciate what we do.

“Many families who frequented the cemetery do not want to visit as much as they did pre-Covid-19 because it’s risky, so they let us look after their loved ones’ graves and pay us monthly through the e-wallet.” DM

Gallery

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