LIVE BY DESIGN | Ifile Inja! The dog is dead: Navigating grief amid societal judgement

This week, my cellphone has been inundated with videos of cash-in-transit incidents that have taken place in KwaMashu in uMhlanga, the area that has shaped so much of what I know about life, love, death, and grief. A quick look at the crime statistics reveals a picture of an area that is consistently ranked among the top five most dangerous areas in the country. Crime and death are constants in the daily lives of the people of KwaMashu.

I was hardly surprised when I woke up to Friday morning’s news that the police had swooped into an affluent part of the neighbourhood and killed four alleged heist gang members. There is no doubt in my mind that the neighbours, who I saw on TV taking their chairs out to get a front-row seat to the drama, may have been both traumatised and relieved. You see, in this part of the world, people go about their business with knowledge. They know what they know, and what they do not know is often a choice –  a survival trick.

They murmur their approval and disapproval. In times like this, they borrow from the Zulu idiom: “Isosha lifela emsebenzini walo”, which, loosely translated, means: “Live by the sword and die by the sword.”

As I watched the scenes unfold on my television, I imagined the hushed conversations of “good riddance”. Then, I thought of relatives who may or may not have benefitted from the alleged criminal activities of the deceased. I know these scenes and conversations and have participated in several in my lifetime.

Just two weeks ago, not far from KwaMashu, a well-known businessman named Nkululeko Mkhize was killed in a hail of bullets. At his funeral, according to reports from TimesLIVE, his brother, Mathula Mkhize, expressed regret and apologised for how the late businessman had built his empire on tears and blood.

“I know that there are those who are here to celebrate his (Mkhize’s) death. If you are here today and you’ve cried and grieved because you lost your family members at the hands of my brother, I want to apologise on his behalf. Go home and tell your family that we, as his blood, are apologising for him, his actions, and the pain you all endured,” the brother, a well-known taxi boss in Durban, said, according to TimesLIVE.

Grief transcends labels and affects all who experience it.

Navigating grief amid societal judgement and guilt is common in this part of the world.

Grief and guilt are complex emotions that intertwine when families like the Mkhizes find themselves mourning the loss of a loved one who – either wrongly or correctly – was perceived as a terrorist by others. In such situations, the pain of grief becomes layered with the burden of societal judgment, leaving families to navigate a web of conflicting emotions.

Exacerbating the situation is the frequent lack of awareness families have about the darker actions of their own members. While they might harbour some suspicions or have a vague sense that something is amiss, they often remain blissfully ignorant of the full extent of the harm being inflicted by their relative. In some instances, a figure who is feared as a ruthless warlord in public may be perceived as a devoted and caring father at home.

When a person is labelled as inja (dog), it often carries a heavy weight of stigma and condemnation. Society’s perception can cast a shadow on the grieving process, adding an extra layer of complexity for the family. In this context, grief becomes a battleground where personal loss clashes with public opinion.

For these families, the grief they experience is often multifaceted. On the one hand, they mourn the loss of a beloved family member, grappling with the pain of their absence. They remember the smiles shared, the moments cherished, and the love that once filled their lives. Yet, on the other hand, they may feel a sense of guilt or shame associated with their loved one’s alleged crimes.

The internal struggle between grief and guilt can be overwhelming. It is challenging for families to reconcile their affection for their dear one with the harsh labels imposed upon them by society. They may question their own judgement, wondering how they could have missed any signs or warning signals. The weight of guilt can consume them, causing them to doubt their own memories and experiences.

In such challenging times, it becomes crucial for families to find support and understanding from those who can empathise with their unique predicament. Sharing their experiences with others who have faced similar circumstances can provide solace and help them find a path towards healing. Mathula Mkhize’s speech at his brother’s funeral was meant for his family and his brother’s victims.

It is essential for society to recognise that grief knows no boundaries and that the families of individuals deemed terrorists also suffer immense pain. Empathy and compassion can pave the way for a more inclusive understanding of grief, acknowledging the complex emotions experienced by these families.

Grieving for a loved one regarded as a terrorist by others is an arduous journey filled with contradictory emotions. Families must navigate the painful process of mourning while contending with societal judgement and their own guilt.

PS: Spare a thought for the KwaMashu community near to the house where the four people were killed. Up until the funeral, their nights will be filled with the sound of gunshots as those who celebrate criminality pay their “respect” to the alleged fallen “soldiers of the criminal movement”.

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