May I speak in the name of God, who is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
Members of the Royal Family,
Members of the Buthelezi family,
Your Excellency, Mr President,
Your Excellencies, Presidents Obasanjo, Mbeki, Motlanthe and Zuma,
Ministers, MECs and Mayors,
KwaZulu/Natal and national Church leaders, including Bishop Vikinduku Mculwane of Zululand,
Members of the amaZulu nation,
Fellow South Africans,
You will forgive me if I don’t try to name every dignatory who is present here today, but instead follow the advice of that great African saint, St Augustine of Hippo, who said that sermons at funerals are meant not to praise the great and the good, nor even the deceased, but to strengthen the loved ones of those who have died.
So in the first instance, I bring to you, members of the Buthelezi family, the profound condolences of the Anglican Church, our Synod of Bishops and the Diocese of Zululand. And as President of the South African Council of Churches, I make bold to convey the condolences of the wider church community in South Africa also. However, in a moment such as this in the life of a nation, the definition of family casts a very wide net, including the Royal Family of amaZulu, so faithfully served by uMntwana waKwaPhindangene, his colleagues, his political party, and great numbers of his supporters across the country. To all of you, our deepest condolences.
I count it a privilege to have been asked to preach today. That is firstly because it speaks to the long relationship between the Zulu nation and the Anglican Church, going back to the time of Bishop Colenso and his daughters, who defended the Zulu monarchy in the face of British aggression and the harassment of their majesties, Cetshwayo kaMpande and Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo. Secondly, it is a privilege because Prince Buthelezi ranks alongside OR Tambo and Alan Paton as one of the most prominent lay Anglicans of the last century, a devout member of the church’s Order of Simon of Cyrene and a confidant of bishops since the time of Archbishop Joost de Blank 60 years ago. The Requiem Mass we are holding today, with hymns he chose and a form of service similar to that of his beloved wife, Irene, reflects his specific wishes, conveyed during pastoral visits I made to him in the last years and months of his life.
At the time of someone’s death, the church’s task is to provide comfort, to accompany those in mourning and to remind ourselves of the truth of resurrection life. There is an ancient prayer that seems to speak into this moment, which says: “May the sweet light of change shine in the darkness/ May the first breath of each morning begin life again/ May the memories unfold as prayers for life/ May the love continue to fill the silence.”
When I heard of uMntwana’s death, I could not help but think of those poignant words of Shakespeare in his play, Hamlet. As Horatio gazed on the body of the dying Prince of Denmark, he uttered that magnificent final benediction: “Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing you to your rest.” It came to me no doubt because the play and the life we commemorate today are both stories of princes: public figures in whose hands the destiny of many lay. But I thought of those words also because in a curious way Shakespeare also knew well the story of faith that belongs to the last moments of life; a story of grace and the abiding fact that at the end of the day all of us, whether we are saint or sinner, prince or pauper, surrender ourselves into the hands of God, and for all of us, the songs of angels carry us to our rest. In such a moment, it is the church’s most profound ministry to carry out one of the great works of mercy and that is to bury the dead.
Much has been said about the Prince over these past few days. Much more remains to be said and history will make its own judgments in some future time. For those called to be leaders in human affairs, those judgments will be varied, harsh as well as complimentary. But, they will also always be at heart a testimony of one who was not afraid to live and not too timid to love.
Preaching at the funeral of His Majesty, King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, I said that his was truly a consequential reign, and that a a result the hold of the Zulu monarchy on our collective imagination is as strong as it ever was. This is due in no small part to the efforts of Prince Buthelezi, who – like Nehemiah in the Old Testament – worked to rebuild the walls of the old Zulu kingdom. In that vein, I hope that the Royal Family can overcome its current differences in such a way as to retain the respect in which it is held.
In the end, I and our church are among those who are pleased that in the 1990s, uMntwana decided that he saw his future, and the future of amaZulu, as being part of a wider South African nation. When I visited him in hospital a few weeks ago, I expressed our appreciation for the role he has played in Parliament in recent years. I told him that at times when some of our politicians were behaving badly in those hallowed precincts, he had been a model of dignity and discipline, reprimanding them and shaming them by showing them how public representatives ought to contribute to debate about the welfare of our nation. As our beloved South Africa moves forward, I hope that we can, through dialogue and debate, inculcate the values in our collective lives that peace is better than war, that ultimately, no matter the suffering of the past, we have to learn to live together, and that our wounds will thus heal.
Let me return to the story of Lazarus that we heard in today’s reading from John’s Gospel, a story that helps bring comfort to those who grieve. There is something wonderful about Jesus coming to join Lazarus’s family and entering into his sister’s grief, not when he is first called but at a time he knows to be best for them, when he knows their pain is deepest. Even when we feel that Jesus has not heard our cry, even when we fear that he might never come into the village of our heartbreak, the deep truth is that he will come. He will walk the rest of the journey with us and, amazingly, this Jesus who calms storms, feeds multitudes and heals lepers, will also cry with us. For the story says, very powerfully, “Jesus wept.” We will therefore never grieve, nor watch, nor weep alone.
It is interesting, and we must draw comfort from this, that Jesus goes to the tomb, indeed we could say more accurately, Jesus confronts the tomb. Jesus will not allow a place that is incapable of sustaining life any chance to have the last word. He will not allow places that short-circuit potential, that inhibit possibilities, or that diminish peace to overcome us. The tomb, despite its reputation for finality, cannot hold captive us or those we love. Life is changed not ended. And so Shenge will not be dead in the greater sense, he will continue to live every time we confront tombs that diminish peace or possibilities or potential, every time we stand up against hunger and corruption and theft from the poor. Every time we dare to hope for a better world and a more just country, then we will have rolled the stone away. Every time we stand resolutely against the scourge of violence against women and children and the reign of gangsterism in so many townships, we will have rolled the stone away and allowed hope to fill the air, allowed dreams to be realised and the dead to be honoured. We will remember Shenge best, we will honour him most sincerely if we roll stones away, if we give time to reflecting on how his life challenges us to be more humane.
Ours is a very difficult time, in South Africa and beyond. So much in our public life is toxic, our better selves seem to be hidden inside our tombs. We need a new generation of women and men who will hear the call of Jesus to roll stones away and unbind that which destroys life. We need people who will put up their hands and say thus far and no further to our multiple cultures of death. We need people who will ensure that they do not succumb to either fear or resignation in an hour that so cries out for courage. When we take all of this together, Paul was quite right when he said: “We do not mourn like those who have no hope.”
It is little wonder that Madiba had this to say of people who embrace life and serve others. He said: “Death is something inevitable. When a person has done what they consider their duty to their people and their country, they can rest in peace.” So we give Shenge leave to go, to enter his rest and for eternity to hold us close to his heart. We hear the words of Revelation: “Be faithful unto death and I will give you a crown of glory.”
May the Prince’s death inspire a generation who will usher in a true African Renaissance. Then indeed he will be able to rest in peace, to rest where Lazarus is poor no more, in that Holy City, the new and heavenly Jerusalem.
May Shenge’s soul rest in God’s peace and rise in glory, and to his family we say: Condolences.