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Friendship, solidarity at Avalon
04 February 2011

Heroes are buried at Avalon Cemetery in Soweto, alongside thousands of ordinary people – for all it is a place for the living to preserve memories.

COULD there be a greater sign of friendship and solidarity than to be buried in the same grave, in Avalon Cemetery in Soweto?

The remains of three Umkhonto we Sizwe cadres were re-buried in Avalon in 1997
The remains of three Umkhonto we Sizwe cadres were re-buried in Avalon in 1997
So it is with struggle comrades Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph, who requested the joint burial in Soweto’s famous cemetery. Both women were forever bound by their similar experiences of being banned, arrested, jailed and charged with treason.

Ngoyi died on 13 March 1980 and was buried at Avalon, which opened in 1972. She was the first president of the ANC Women’s League, and in 1954 was the only woman member of the ANC’s national executive committee. She was the first president of the Federation of South African Women.

She spent time in solitary confinement, and was still a banned person at the time of her death.

A fiery and inspirational orator, the Sunday Times reports that writer Es’kia Mphahlele said of her: “She can toss an audience on her little finger, get men grunting with shame and a feeling of smallness, and infuse everyone with renewed courage.”

She was a nurse and clothing machinist who spent years working alone as a seamstress in her house, under banning orders. The Sunday Times erected a sculptured sewing machine made by artist Stephen Maqashela from car parts, on the wall of Ngoyi’s Soweto house, in celebration of the weekly newspaper’s 100th anniversary.

Twelve years after her death, her long-time friend died. Joseph was the first person to be placed under house arrest, in 1962. She had several narrow escapes from death – shots were fired at her house, and a bomb was placed in her letter box. She had her last banning order lifted when she was 80 years old; she died seven years later.

Joseph was appalled at the conditions under which black women worked and, together with Ngoyi, helped form the Federation of South African Women. She was present at the Congress of the People gathering for the ratification of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown in 1955.

Ngoyi and Joseph spearheaded the anti-pass laws march of 20 000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 1956, after the apartheid government announced it would extend the pass laws to black women. The day, 9 August, is remembered still as Women’s Day.

Joseph was childless but frequently took care of others’ children when they were in prison – Zinzi and Zenani Mandela and Bram Fischer’s daughter, Ilsa, were cared for by her. She developed a strong bond with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who once called Joseph the “mother of the nation”, according to an obituary of Joseph in Britain’s The Independent newspaper.

The hammer and sickle headstone on Joe Slovo’s grave in Avalon Cemetery
The hammer and sickle headstone on Joe Slovo’s grave in Avalon Cemetery
She was awarded the ANC’s highest award, the Isitwalandwe/Seaparankoe medal, for her devotion to the liberation struggle, confirming her status as a symbol of defiance, integrity and courage.

In July 2010 the grave of the two women was declared a national heritage site.

Anti-apartheid heroes
It is not the only noteworthy grave in the cemetery. Avalon Cemetery is filled with the graves of many other brave anti-apartheid heroes. There’s 12-year-old Hector Pieterson, who gave his life to the struggle on 16 June 1976. There’s Tsietsi Mashinini, who led the first march on that dramatic day. He went into exile shortly afterwards, spending 14 years away from his home and family before dying in Guinea in 1990, when other exiles were returning.

There’s 15-year-old Hastings Ndlovu, who rests at Avalon too. He was shot before Pieterson on that fateful day but died several hours after him. Ndlovu was shot through the head and lay in a coma for several hours in hospital before succumbing to his injury.

Long-time anti-apartheid stalwart Joe Slovo is buried in Heroes’ Acre in Avalon.

Other heroes are buried there too – the exhumed remains of three Umkhonto we Sizwe cadres from Soweto, Lesetja Sexwale, Anthony Dali and Isaac Rakobo, were re-buried at the cemetery in 1997.

SS Mendi heroes
Then there’s the tribute to the 607 black troops who died in World War 1 aboard the SS Mendi. On 21 February 1917, the steamship carrying the troops was crossing the English Channel when it was rammed by another ship. It sank within 20 minutes, and 607 of over 800 soldiers went to the bottom of the sea, together with nine officers and 33 crew members.

In 1995, President Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth unveiled the Mendi Memorial and Garden of Remembrance in Avalon, in memory of the brave men and all those who gave their lives during world wars 1 and 2.

The plaque on the memorial reads:

Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death.
I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers,
Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers.
We are the sons of Africa.
Raise your cries, brothers,
for though they made us leave our weapons at our home,
our voices are left with our bodies.

Most important cemetery

Former Soweto mayor and struggle icon Sophie Masite's grave at Avalon Cemetery
Former Soweto mayor and struggle icon Sophie Masite is buried in Avalon Cemetery
Avalon is the city’s most important cemetery – 55 percent of all burials in Joburg take place there. Some 200 Sowetans are buried in the cemetery every week, over 10 000 each year.

Before Avalon opened, Sowetans were buried in Klipspruit Nancefield Cemetery. That burial ground opened in 1912 but it is now full except for second or third burials. In recent years up to 5 000 trees have been planted in Avalon. The 172ha cemetery is soon to be extended by 25ha, with a further 125ha to be developed in the future.

Joburg has 35 cemeteries and three crematoria, all managed by Johannesburg City Parks. The agency takes its custodianship of its cemeteries seriously, and regards cemeteries as “areas of remembrance to honour the deceased”, it indicates in its booklet, Cemeteries & Crematoria.

In addition, cemeteries provide opportunities to create green spaces within dense urban areas.

City Parks wishes to leave a legacy in its cemeteries that continues “to honour those who have passed before us, by creating green, treed havens within the city, where the living can preserve their memories into the future”.

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