WHEN iconic former South African President Nelson Mandela died in December last year, the world came to a halt.
Different races, political parties and international leaders came together to mourn the loss of a man revered as a true hero. No one was bussed to his funeral, but people from all walks of life came in huge numbers.
The same happened when Zimbabwean hero, Vice-President Joshua Nkomo, who had become such a legend that he was called Father Zimbabwe, breathed his last in 1999.
Thousands congregated at the National Heroes’ Acre to bid farewell to the liberation war hero to whom the peaceful co-existence of Zimbabwean tribes is attributed today.
No one was force–marched or bussed to the burial against their own volition.
Today, the death of a Zanu PF hero has led to hiring of professional mourners who religiously attend funerals and mourn with the relatives of the deceased.
The recent closure of Glen View furniture market as punishment to those who had failed to attend the burial of national hero Stanley Sakupwanya is clear testimony of how Zanu PF has reduced thousands of job seekers into professional mourners who are hired in exchange for protection and the right to carry out their informal businesses.
“In most cases, we don’t know who we will be burying. We are only told that our presence will be welcome at the National Heroes’ Acre and we just attend. Usually transport is organised for us at specific pick-up points,” said a stallholders at the Glen View furniture market identified as Stanley.
“It doesn’t matter whether we know the deceased or not. Our duty is to attend the funeral. Failure to do that has consequences. One is perceived to be an opposition party member and that comes with a price.”
Economic desperation forces stallholders into professional mourning
Professional mourners across the world, known as moirologists in the Middle East, converge at the national shrines to pay their last respects and perform prescribed duties during the funeral regardless of the fact that they do not know the deceased person.
Moirologists are often trained to appear grief-stricken at funerals, but in Zimbabwe, this new group of professionals has emerged from the high level of unemployment and economic desperation especially among the youths.
The trend has also become a hit in Britain with Rent a Mourner founder and director Ian Robertson saying they are often fully booked.
The company website says that the move was meant to help increase visitors to funerals where there may be a low turnout.
In Zimbabwe, Zanu PF seems to have found its own professional mourners who attend every funeral of national heroes buried at the national shrine.
The youths and Zanu PF members from Mupedzanhamo, Siyaso and mostly Glen View markets flock to the National Heroes’ Acre whenever there is death of a party cadre.
Other professional mourners are members of the apostolic sects, beneficiaries of Zanu PF empowerment projects and housing co-operative members whose duty is to fill the gaps of the national shrines whenever President Robert Mugabe is officiating.
Markets are usually controlled by a committee of Zanu PF activists who monitor how the party interests are being served.
“When a hero dies, it is our time to show how much we love the party. We are made to close our shops and head for Stodart Hall then the National Heroes’ Acre. We rehearse songs for the burial and we are assigned duties,” another stall owner said.
“There is a Zanu PF committee here that monitors us and if we miss a burial, we will be in for it. We can’t afford to miss a national hero’s burial for anything, not even money.”
Mupedzanhamo market is also one such place that is “automatically” closed in “honour” of a deceased national hero.
“We close our markets whenever there is a burial of a hero or any other Zanu PF activity in town,” said a woman who identified herself as Mercy who operates at Mupedzanhamo.
Zanu PF, through its empowerment drive, has effectively taken over most council land and markets, parcelling it out to its supporters and jobless youths in exchange for guarantee that the party will get support from the beneficiaries.
“President Mugabe presides over most burials at the national shrine and it will be embarrassing for him to address empty seats. We are given a task to mobilise people whenever there is a funeral of a national hero or any State function to fill up gaps,” said a Zanu PF provincial youth member.
“Everyone in the party structures has to attend and these include the stall holders who are in our books registered as card-carrying members of the party.”
Transport is always provided for the “mourners” at “usual pick-up points” and food is arranged for the mourners after the funeral.
Harare deputy mayor Thomas Muzuva said Zanu PF had taken over stalls at Mupedzanhamo and Siyaso markets, which are supposed to be under the local authorities’ control.
“We have 3 000 tables at Siyaso and 1 500 at Mupedzanhamo where a tenant is paying $300 a month to landlords yet failing to pay $61 to council,” Muzuva told a full council meeting recently.
The 1 500 tables are divided into two or three compartments, with each tenant paying more than $300 to Zanu PF officials.
Council chairperson for the Housing and Community Development committee Charles Nyatsuro said that an investigation team has been put in place to draw a list of council markets being allegedly abused by Zanu PF youths who did not pay rates to the local authority.
“People are doing what they want with council property. Council is supposed to be taking control of the markets, but that is not happening. There is confusion all over,” Nyatsuro said.
“We are carrying out an investigation; we do not know what is happening at the markets because we are not getting reports. I am not sure about that one. People do what they want. We don’t know it’s confusion all over. For all controversial markets, we want to establish who is running there,” he added.
According to the youths, most of them who opened up to NewsDay that were not even interested in politics, they are doing this just to get protection.
“There is a register used to check who attends such functions or not. If you don’t, then it means you are an opposition member and then risk being kicked out of the workplace,” said another stallholder at the Glen View furniture market who almost fell victim after failing to attend the burial of national hero Sakupwanya.
A member of the Mbare Chimurenga Choir which has taken over entertainment duties at national funerals confirmed that they have virtually become professional mourners.
“Some of the professional mourners include the Mbare Chimurenga choir who have taken over entertainment at every Zanu PF funeral.
“If it’s in Harare, we are hired to go to the home of the deceased and sing there,” said the choir member.
They take up the traditional role of the sahwira (a family friend whose main role is to bury a deceased friend) at the gravesite where they dance, ululate and crack jokes to lighten up the sombre, funereal mood.
During the burial of national heroes, four tents are pitched at the national shrine for the relatives, the VIP tent for Zanu PF leaders including Mugabe, one reserved for diplomats and another that houses ministers, legislators as well as Politburo and Central Committee members.
Members of the Mbare Chimurenga choir have their place next to members of the apostolic sect who religiously attend the burials of any Zanu PF official buried at the national shrine.
Kneeling, waving flags and placards, the Mapostori members and Mbare Chimurenga line up to greet Mugabe and sing funeral dirges until the President gets to the VIP tent.
The minister of Religion prays and leaves the proceeding to Home Affairs minister Kembo Mohadi to proceed. In between the proceedings, the “hired” mourners will be singing and dancing.
Soldiers, regardless of whether the deceased was an army officer or not are forced to attend by their superiors and in most cases, fill half of the terraces.
Mugabe has made it clear that the national shrine is strictly a Zanu PF preserve. And to improve on numbers, professional mourners hiring is a necessity.