'Sorry, we have to do this': Undertakers in Soweto down tools for strike

14 September 2020 - 18:42
By nonkululeko njilo AND Nonkululeko Njilo
Members of the Unification Task Team (UTT) protested outside Baragwanath Academic Hospital in  Soweto on Monday over long-standing grievances.
Image: Nonkululeko Njilo / TimesLIVE Members of the Unification Task Team (UTT) protested outside Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Soweto on Monday over long-standing grievances.

Nonhlanhla Skosana, a mortuary worker in Soweto, had to be the bearer of bad news when a young woman called, frantically needing assistance with moving her father's corpse: funeral parlours embarked on a nationwide strike on Monday.

“I had to explain that we’re on strike, we can’t fetch the body. It was heartbreaking. I’ve never had to turn down anyone,” she said.

“She was crying, pleading for help - but there was nothing I could do.”

The protest was called by the Unification Task Team (UTT). In Soweto, they gathered outside Baragwanath Academic Hospital. They protested in song, carrying a coffin at the entrance watched by police.

The protesting crowd said they had instructed their members to call the police in case of emergencies during the three-day strike.

Lehlohonolo Swarts of Hloni Funerals was among them.

“We are not fighting our clients, but the government. We are the front takers, we are the ones doing the real work during this pandemic, but we have received no recognition,” he said.  

Swarts said like many other industries, funeral parlours were not prepared to deal with the pandemic and the government never jumped in to assist.   

“The government has never said anything to us, we were never given personal protective equipment (PPE), not even trained on how to handle a Covid-19 corpse but we took it upon ourselves. We even lost some of our members in the industry,” he said.

“There are many long-standing issues. We are saying the government must come to the table and listen to us.”

Thobile Dubazana of Muthoto’s Funeral Parlor expressed similar sentiments.

“We have been playing a very big role as undertakers. We just want the government to recognise us. We want transformation in this industry,” she said.

Dubazana said she was aware of the affect of the strike on families who had lost loved ones. 

“We are honestly hurt. The government needs to realise that funeral parlours are important. We feel sorry for our clients. We ask for them to forgive us because we have to do this in order to assist them efficiently.”

Rebecca Nxumalo of MV Funeral Services said for the longest time, the cries of funeral parlours had fallen on deaf ears.

“We are not happy with how the government has been treating us. Some of our colleagues died as a result of Covid-19 and no one said anything. The government did not even bother with helping us with PPE,” she said.

“We deserve some sort of recognition. We incurred extra costs and put ourselves on the line because we deal directly with the bodies.”

Thapelo Sehapi, director of Better Care Funeral Services, said he joined the protest to make his voice heard.

“The government is really sidelining us [small funeral parlours] because we use PPE on a daily basis at our own expense. We have incurred many extra costs and received no subsidy, even though we play an important role during the pandemic,” he said.  

Sehapi said in instances where a person died at home, they would fetch the body and later have a doctor examine it to determine the cause of the death - at the family’s cost.

“Things are worse now. They are adding pain to the bereaved family, because families also have to pay for the corpse to be tested for Covid-19. It's unfair to us,” he said.  

Muzi Magubane, facilitator of the UTT in Soweto, echoed similar sentiments, adding small undertakers had been deprived of opportunities to grow.

Asked when they would halt the strike, Magubane responded: “We will stop when the government recognise us. We have said the strike is for three days, but if our pleas are not heard, we could go [on] - but we want it to end soon.”