When a gangster dies

When a gangster dies

MASERU – WHEN a soldier dies the funeral is a sombre and formal affair. Covered in a national flag, the coffin is lowered to the sound of a 21 gun salute.
When a Catholic church member dies mourners sing along to serene songs of lament.
Mournful hymns like ‘I am Your Child’ and ‘I will come to you O Mary’ would help soothe and heal bereaved families.

In a country where 90 percent of the population is Christian and half of that is Catholic, this was the typical Basotho way of mourning.
It is the same with funerals of other Christians, although the tempo of funeral hymns has lately shifted and became danceable tunes.

But even as Christianity and some of its rituals have deepened their roots in communities, some people remain loyal to their traditional way of mourning.
It is not uncommon for men to sing a mokorotlo (grumbling) at dawn as they take the dead to the graveyard. With the mokorotlo, Basotho men were calling upon their ancestors to welcome the dead in the spirit realm while imploring them to protect their village against other possible deaths.
But when a famo gangster dies there is chaos at the funeral.

There is nothing overly unusual with gun battles at a famo gangster’s funeral.
At such funerals the mokorotlo has been replaced by makhele (self-praise songs of violence).
Depending on which gang one belongs to, the party goers (who are supposed to be mourners) engage in mock fights, sometimes ending up in serious injuries.
Women gangsters ululate while men lift the coffin into the air and run with it singing makhele songs.

With slight variations, those were the scene at the funeral of popular famo singer, Mokhathi Malefane, in the outskirts of Thabana Morena two weeks ago.
Malefane was shot dead in February in what is suspected to be a famo gang-related killing.
Known in famo circles as Roba Mohoke (the aggressor who breaks bones), Malefane was a member of the Seakhi gang which is identified by its letlama blanket, durable brands like Brentwood pair of trousers and Florsheim or Crocket & Jones shoes.

His funeral was therefore a typical gangster’s send-off despite efforts by a joint force of the police and the military to subdue it. The joint force mounted road blocks on all roads leading to the funeral. They confiscated guns, sticks and knives.

They also seized blankets and jerseys they suspected to be associated with famo gangs.
Mourners who tried to resist were beaten and made to roll in the mud for hours.
Yet even the intervention of the army and the police could not deter the gangsters from burying their comrade the way they wanted.

The gangsters insisted on moving Malefane’s body into another casket they had brought.
Their argument was that the casket bought by the family was too cheap and therefore ill-fitted for a man of Malefane’s stature in the famo hierarchy.
There was no mock fighting but mabetlela (wooden fighting sticks) and spades were hoisted around the coffin while women ululated.

Police barred mourners from wearing the gang’s trademark blankets.
Such dramatic scenes have become typical of funerals of famo music dons and prominent supporters.
Often, a convoy of cars snakes for more than a kilometre accompanying the body from the mortuary to home where it should lay before burial.

They take over the roads, zig-zagging, blowing horns and flashing vehicle lights. Others sit atop moving sedans or hang precariously on car windows singing makhele.
Whistles and vuvuzelas and gang identity blankets are all part of the action. There are two major famo gangs in the country, the Seakhi and Terene although smaller groups are sprouting up and they are all identifiable by the colour of the blankets they wear.

To give other motorists any chance of using the roads on such days, police usually deploy in large numbers on the streets.
Police have also put a stop to the culture of firing gunshots in the air at such funerals and routinely search mourners for weapons.
If there is a night vigil for the deceased, mourners spend the night singing praises to the dead but most drama is usually reserved for the burial day.

Fully dressed in their gang’s attire, famo supporters descend on the deceased’s home in droves. They come from all parts of the country while others make the long journey from their bases outside the country.
The casket is usually an expensive one.
Famo gangsters pay a subscription fee as a form of insurance.
During the funerals the money is used, amongst others things, to buy some items that could help bury the deceased according to the gang’s tradition.
Part of that tradition involves various groups of supporters lifting the coffin and moving around the homestead with it while singing on top of their voices in intervals.
When the coffin is in the air, group members beat it with mabetlela while one man would be singing “tlake se solle re epela motho, motho oa marumo h’a epeloe hae (Let vultures not hover around for we are burying a person, a person died of spears is not buried at home)”.

The journey to the cemetery is equally dramatic. Supporters carrying the coffin dash ahead of everyone else, leaving other mourners behind.
At one funeral, a man rode on the coffin as if it were a bicycle.
If the deceased used to drink beer, different brands of alcohol would be poured on his grave.
After the burial, the supporters would run helter-skelter because they believe they have accomplished their mission.
The singing would still continue on the way back to the deceased’s home.
These gangsters usually live in South Africa illegally working in some closed mines and they carry stashes of cash to funerals of their colleagues.

Roba Mohoke, a famo artist gunned down by unknown men who are still at large, was a member of the Seakhi group.
There was drama at his funeral when police tried to stop the group from performing some rituals.
When Ngaka ‘Spenzo’ Mahao was buried two months ago at his home in Ha-Rannakoe, his supporters also tried to perform rituals but were stopped by the police. Mahao was a supporter of Terene, a rival of the Seakhi gang.
The drama usually lasts for hours and some women, non-gangsters, would not accompany the corpse to the cemetery for fear of their safety.
The police, who are part of the action in many instances looking out for any signs of trouble are not only banning rituals but have developed a universal torturing practice where the ‘offenders’ are usually made to roll several times on the ground.
Police say the rituals trigger violence.

Famo gangs are common in Mafeteng district but they have now spread to other parts of the country.
The previous government banned the wearing of attire associated with famo gangs to try and bring down cases of violence. But deaths related to famo gangs have not dropped.
When Thulo Motau was buried last Sunday at his home in Ha-Khojane, some mourners tried to sing makhele but the police stopped them.

Of late, the army and the police are deployed to stop any bloodshed that could take place at the burials of famo gangsters or supporters.
The security agents are usually on alert armed to the teeth with rifles, but whether these heavy-handed tactics will wear down the new forms of worship – only time will tell.

Majara Molupe


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