South African visitors study co-operative funerals

A much needed reduction in expensive funeral costs could be on the cards for residents in South African townships following a visit to the UK by a team from South Africa. After a week studying co-operative funeral provision in the UK, they are planning to set up co-operatives in Johannesburg to provide an affordable alternative to existing undertakers.

Following the visit to several funeral homes and manufacturing units in Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, the delegates are determined to spread the message of co-operation back home.

The trip to the UK was part of a small project that has included research on the ground in Soweto and Ivory Park, two sprawling townships around Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial centre. The project is funded by the Co-operative Enterprise Hub of the Co-operative Group.

The research showed that funeral costs for residents of South Africa’s townships can be exorbitant. The average cost of a low income funeral in Soweto, for example, is about £600 in a community where more than half the households have annual income of less than £900. Developing a co-operative alternative could produce substantial savings as well as provide jobs.

Peace Vilakazi is responsible for trying to find livelihoods for veterans of Umkhonto we Sizwe MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress. He said: “We have arranged training on coffin making for thirty MK veterans: when their training finishes next year, we want to set up a coffin manufacturing co-operative. At the moment, mark-ups on coffins by undertakers are enormous. Visiting the coffin factory in Shieldhall near Glasgow has given me plenty of ideas.”

David Collingwood, Operations Manager for Funeralcare, added: “We showed our visitors a range of operations from start up homes to the manufacturing complex in Glasgow that produces 100,000 coffins a year. There was fantastic interest from Funeralcare staff in what the South African team are hoping to do, and we are keen to support them in any way we can.”

Atish Satgoor, another team member, helped with the background research into the South African funeral business. He will now convene a meeting in Johannesburg so that the team can feed back its findings to the communities and potential co-operative members. “Major logistical issues remain to be sorted out”, he explained. “In one township, there is no mortuary, so families must travel more than 20 kilometres to view the deceased. The task now is to start identifying those parts of the supply chain where a co-operative can be set up and be successful as well as provide a good service.”

Stirling Smith, International Programmes Manager at the Co-operative College, which is co-ordinating the project, explained that “under apartheid, co-operatives were designed as a system of state support for white farmers. It has proved difficult to build a different type of co-operation movement, and the majority of co-operatives that have been set up have failed, and those surviving are small and precarious.

“So it was great that our South African visitors could see for themselves how a co-operative business can be commercially successful and ethical. I must also thank Funeralcare for the arrangements. Nothing was too much trouble for them and they were very generous with their time and resources.”

The South African team at the Shieldhall Funeralcare centre in Glasgow.

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