Nomtu Magalela stands knee-deep in a freshly-dug grave at Cambrian Cemetery in Boksburg, on Gauteng’s East Rand. A few metres below her feet is the coffin of an unknown person who died a few years ago.
The 56-year-old mother of two is clad in a blue City of Ekurhuleni overall, and her face is covered with a blue mask with an airflow valve in front.
A pile of red sand lies next to her. Today, she is doing a grave reopening after family members have requested to bury a second loved one in the same grave.
As her shovel sinks into the soft ground in the grave, mourners have gathered nearby, close to an empty grave site. A few plastic covered chairs are placed under the gazebo.
Fewer than 50 people, adhering to the strict Covid-19 regulations, are present as gospel hymns and cries echo through the cemetery. At the cemetery that Tuesday morning, there were four funerals.
Magalela looks on as a yellow excavator continues to dig more empty and ready graves. For her, this was just a “normal day” in the life of a gravedigger. She is the only female grave digger in her team of four.
“Digging graves as an older woman, what can I say, I see myself as strong as a rock. It shows that we can do anything as women. I don’t have any more fear because I work alongside men,” said Magalela.
“They know when I get tired and help me out, but I know that I have done my job.”
Their day starts at 7 am. “It’s either there is a re-opening or we are there to fix a new grave bed so the coffin fits well,” she said.
“Truthfully, it is painful. But I have become used to it because … I used to work with undertakers for 10 years. But you can never get used to death. There is a part of you that hurts, even when you don’t know the deceased. Death is emotional.”
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, 56-year-old grave digger Nomtu Magalela spent most of her shifts at Cambrian graveyard in Boksburg digging new graves. She and her team now reopen about 17 graves daily, to save space for excess deaths.
On a typical day before the pandemic, Magalela’s team would do about seven grave reopenings. Most of their time was spent on digging new graves.
“Now that there is Covid, there are a lot more reopenings – maybe 17 daily,” she said.
“Fear will always be there, but it gets better – because when I’d be digging they would know when the coffin is near and when to stop.”
Covid-19 has also claimed the lives of two of her uncles. Magalela said she was unable to attend the funerals due to strict travelling regulations.
She said she has not had to dig a grave for someone close to her.
“In the villages, we as women do not dig the graves. This is something we only do at work. I would feel hurt if it was someone I know because it is already painful digging a grave for people I do not know. That would be much more painful.”
The most experienced man in Magalela’s team is 59-year-old Zola Nqunqa. He has been working as a gravedigger since 1991.
“I got into this line of work because I needed a job. It’s not something that I always wanted to do. I went through many places looking for a job and this is the one that came along,” he said.
Nqunqa recalls the day he did his first reopening back in 1991.
“There was no one with me as the other workers were working at a different site. I was the only one there to dig the grave.
“I started digging and as I continued the earth beneath me started to collapse inside. I was inside the grave when it happened … I got out and ran away, leaving everything – including the spade I was using – behind.”
Nqunqa said this experience was an exceptional learning curve.
“Today I am able to teach others how it’s done. For instance, when you reopen a grave, you shouldn’t stand in the centre once you’ve reached a certain depth. You’re supposed to stand with your feet on either side of the grave, because if you stand in the middle, the soil around the coffin will cave inwards.”
On days when Nqunqa is not reopening graves, he spends his time trimming the edges around the graves to make it look neater.
He said since the pandemic hit the country, it has been the “busiest I have been in all my years working as a grave digger”.
At times, the group works seven days a week. “There are funerals taking place here every day. There’s not a day that passes without a funeral. People die every day,” he said.
“Grave-digging can be very emotional because I know that I’m preparing a grave for someone who has died. It’s especially difficult when you’re busy digging a grave and you happen to be working a short distance from where another funeral is taking place.”
Reality hit when he had to dig the graves for his sister in 2014 and mother in 2015.
“It’s also really painful when you have to prepare a grave for someone you know and love. It’s different from any other time, but it has to be done,” said Nqunqa.
“That was really difficult for me, knowing that I’m digging for someone I love, but unfortunately it was something that had to be done.”
Sthembiso Moswazi, who had been working as a gravedigger for the past 16 years, said they had received tremendous support from management in the City of Ekurhuleni.
“There is nothing we can say that we can complain about. When I got the job, I was excited. The team has always supported us and showed us how to do the job,” he said.
Moswazi said during level 5 of the lockdown, on average they dug holes for at least 10 or 11 people per day. He said on weekends at least 50 people would be buried.
“At least now the Covid-19 cases are going down, so we are not seeing that many burials any more,” he said.
“People die in different ways. You see people cry and it gets hard some times, but there is nothing you can do.”
Additional reporting by Sebabatso Mosamo, Emile Bosch and Zama Luthuli.