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The biggest cemetery in South Africa lies in Soweto, as is the final resting place of many heroes of the struggle. It is also the site of the Mendi Memorial.
ON the southern edge of one of the country’s most famous townships, Soweto, lies the equally historic Avalon Cemetery.

The leafy entrance to Avalon CemeteryThe leafy entrance to Avalon CemeteryOpened in 1972 during the height of apartheid, it was reserved exclusively for blacks. According to Johannesburg City Parks, the City-owned utility responsible for cemeteries and crematoriums, this cemetery is the largest in South Africa. It spans 172 hectares and is filled with 300 000 graves.

The main gate faces the N12 Highway, and the cemetery is accessed through the township of Chiawelo, passing by the Soweto Mountain of Hope, or Somoho, a small koppie showcasing arts and artefacts by Sowetan artists.

Earlier this year, the 20ha Avalon Extension Cemetery was opened, providing space for an additional 25 000 primary burials to help alleviate the shortage of burial space in Joburg.

It cost an estimated R11-million and is situated next to Avalon Cemetery, which also boarders Lenasia. It was officially opened on 9 February by Matshidiso Mfikoe, at the time the mayoral committee member for environment and corporate services.

Development of the new extension included a road network, an attenuation pond, a drainage system, fencing, a guard house, ablution facilities, site clearing, rock excavation and landscaping. A further 125 hectares of cemetery is to be added in the future. In recent years, up to 5 000 trees have been planted in Avalon.

The opening of Avalon Extension CemeteryThe opening of Avalon Extension CemeterySpeaking at the opening of the extension, Mfikoe noted that of the City’s 35 cemeteries, 27 had already reached their full capacity for first burials – Avalon Cemetery would have reached its full capacity for first burials by July 2011.

This meant that the City had nine cemeteries with burial space for 552 000 new graves, she added.

Every weekend, more than 200 people are buried at Avalon Cemetery, notes City Parks. It is the city’s most important cemetery, 55 percent of all burials in Joburg taking place – more than 10 000 each year.

Before Avalon opened, Sowetans were buried in Nancefield (Klipspruit) Cemetery. That burial ground opened in 1912 but is now full except for second or third burials.

Struggle heroes
Avalon Cemetery is the final resting place for many of the country’s struggle heroes, and their funerals were mass events.

“During the height of the struggle in the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of mourners congregated at Avalon to sing forbidden songs of freedom and chant banned slogans, until they were driven away by security forces,” notes City Parks.

“Some dressed in military fatigues and were armed with wooden rifles, flocking to the cemetery to demonstrate their solidarity for the struggle.”

Struggle heroes are buried at AvalonStruggle heroes' graves at AvalonAs is Soweto itself, Avalon is associated with a history of defiance and struggle.

City Parks adds: “Funerals for the victims became one of the most powerful expressions of defiance against the apartheid government. When there were not enough buses to drive them to the cemetery, protesters stopped motorists and forced drivers to give them a lift.”

Today, those graves and memorials tell some of the history of South Africa, and of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Just beyond the entrance, to the left, there are memorials dedicated to struggle activists Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph.
Ngoyi died on 13 March 1980. She was the first president of the ANC Women’s League, and in 1954 was the only female member of the ANC’s national executive committee. She was also the first president of the Federation of South African Women.

Twelve years after her death, Joseph, her long-time friend, died. Joseph was the first person to be placed under house arrest, in 1962. She had her last banning order lifted when she was 80 years old; she died seven years later.

The two women – one black, one white – helped form the Federation of South African Women. They 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.

June 16
Hector Pieterson, the 12-year-old first fatality of the June 16, 1976 riots, is also buried at Avalon.

Hastings Ndlovu is buried at AvalonHastings Ndlovu is buried at AvalonHastings Ndlovu rests at Avalon as well. The 15-year-old was the first child to be shot on that morning, but he lay in a coma in hospital for several hours before dying.

There’s also the grave of 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.

Long-time anti-apartheid stalwart Joe Slovo is buried in Heroes’ Acre, along with the exhumed remains of three Umkhonto we Sizwe cadres from Soweto – Lesetja Sexwale, Anthony Dali and Isaac Rakobo – who were re-buried at the cemetery in 1997.

Another stalwart buried at Avalon is Charlotte Maxeke, who was politically active throughout her adult life. She organised the anti-pass movement in Bloemfontein in 1913 and in 1918.

She also founded the Bantu Women’s League of the South African Native National Congress, the forerunner of the ANC. As the head of this organisation, Maxeke led several protests against the apartheid government.

She was involved in protests against low wages and took part in the formation of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union in 1920.

Maxeke took her activism to multiracial movements. She addressed the Women’s Reform Club in Pretoria, an organisation for the voting rights of women, and joined the Joint Council of Europeans and Bantus. Maxeke was also elected president of the Women’s Missionary Society.

During Women’s Month in August 2010, the graves of Ngoyi, Joseph and Maxeke were declared national heritage sites.

Mendi Memorial
But it is not only struggle veterans who are remembered here. The cemetery has memorials to other heroes as well.
To the north, near the train station, lies the Mendi Memorial. In this area, Avalon is clear and wide. New pathways have been laid and trees planted, which over time will change the nature of the cemetery, notes City Parks.

Struggle heroe Sophie Masite's graveStruggle heroe Sophie Masite's graveThe Mendi Memorial honours the memory of the 607 men who lost their lives when the SS Mendi sank in February 1917, during the First World War. A total of 616 South Africans, including 607 black troops serving in the South African Native Labour Contingent, died when the steamship sank in the English Channel on the way to France on 21 February 1917.

They were honoured by Queen Elizabeth II in 1995 at the unveiling of a plaque at the Avalon Cemetery. On it are inscribed the words from a prayer said to the men by ship’s chaplain Isaac Wauchope Dyobha as the ship went down:

“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 houses, our voices are left with our bodies.”

City Parks says: “Avalon continues to play an important role, not only for Sowetans, but for all South Africans, as the country moves from an era of violent struggles to one of reconciliation, and the graves of those who fought for justice continue to be the site of homage for many visitors.”

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