I knew him only as Angel. He was thin and wiry. Too thin. His sunken cheeks and the dark rings under his eyes made me think he might have had an addiction to drugs. He was still handsome. There was something special about him. Something about his soft smile. A glint in his eye. You could just tell that he was a good guy. A good guy fighting the good fight but losing.
I met Angel a few years ago when I started working in Braamfontein. At first, I had to find street parking. It was always a nightmare. Sometimes I had to park a long distance away and sometimes I got a parking ticket. But then Angel, who was working as a car guard, started to recognise me and my car. He would always save a spot for me near the office. He had a friend called Oupa who would do the same.
It turned out that Angel was in fact addicted to drugs. A caring colleague who had beaten addiction herself saw the signs and managed to get him a place at a rehabilitation clinic. He spent six months there, clean and supported. I didn’t see him again after he came out of rehab. I saw pictures of him, though. He had put on weight in a healthy way. His cheeks had filled out a bit. He looked well-groomed and was smiling in the pictures.
But on 20 March he collapsed on the pavement near the office and died. He had ruptured a lung, according to the police. He was back on the street.
I went to his funeral in Noordgesig near Soweto on a gloomy Saturday morning. There was no church service, as per the Covid-19 lockdown regulations, just a small service held at his father’s old, run-down house. His family struggles to make ends meet. Eustin greeted me warmly outside. Tall and handsome like his brother, he wore a mauve velvet jacket and a light blue surgical mask.
Strange, new, impersonal reality
As I entered the small house, the undertaker, who wore gloves and a mask, sprayed sanitiser on my hands and then gave me a pamphlet. The words “Yule ‘Angel’ Randles” were written on the front. He was only 32 years old. Inside the tiny living room was Angel’s coffin. His face was visible through a perspex window. He looked surprisingly good, still handsome. Squashed around the coffin were about six chairs. His mother, Isabella, sat near his head. She was flanked by her sisters and her 18-year-old daughter, Alicia. Most people stood around in the front yard.
Everyone inside wore a mask. Newcomers were handed masks; some wore latex gloves, too. Not everyone seemed to know exactly what to do or how to behave. How would they? How many funerals has anyone been to where you can’t shake hands or hug and comfort mourning family members? Three priests arrived and were issued with masks. The priests were the most uncomfortable behind their masks. Sometimes they removed them to sing or preach.
Alicia stood for a long time, shoulders slumped, staring at her big brother before they closed the casket. Then the coffin was carried out and taken by hearse to West Park Cemetery. As the convoy entered, a police officer roughly counted the people who had managed to cram into the cars available. No more than 50 were allowed. The cemetery was busy despite the lockdown in place.
We had to wait for about 30 minutes for another funeral to leave the burial site because it was too congested. Finally, Angel was buried and his grave filled with bright red earth. Alicia sobbed throughout. Even some of the macho young men who had known Angel before were crying. Some people were passing around hand sanitiser.
It was still overcast when I got in the car to drive home. I took off my mask and sterilised my hands. It was a strange feeling. Funerals are never pleasant, but they are supposed to be comforting. It had been almost impossible to see anyone’s face during this funeral. It was so bizarre because faces are all about emotion.
Funerals in South Africa are also important community events that often draw large numbers of people. The ceremony is usually concluded with a big communal lunch for not only family members but also neighbours. With Covid-19 in our midst, this will be our strange, new, impersonal reality, at least for the next few months.
I hadn’t known Angel well at all, but I wish I had taken a bit more time to get to know him better. To chat a little longer and discover what that sparkle in his eye was all about. He had his troubles; we all do. He fought bravely, but ultimately he was defeated. Eustin smiled sadly when he told me, “He was doing well in the end.”