Opinions

Who is entitled to a state funeral and what does it tell us about commemoration in South Africa?

  • Posted on December 18, 2014

On 27 October 2014, South Africa woke to the news about the death of former Bafana Bafana and Orlando Pirates Football Club captain, Senzo Meyiwa. He was well renowned for his patience in local and national football where he was often overshadowed by existing talent however he did grab the opportunity to prove his worth as a player when the chance arose. On the 31 October 2014, Mac Maharaj is quoted on Times Live, suggesting that both Senzo Meyiwa and Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, a former Olympic silver medallist, would receive official provincial funerals. This means that the national flag is flown at half-mast in the province on the day of the funeral and that all costs are borne by the respective provinces. The two in Maharaj’s words, ‘have represented the nation exceptionally well in national and international sporting engagements, generating immense national pride and unity’. (1) For the purpose of this post, focus is paid to Meyiwa, not only because his burial elicited controversy, but it also received the most media coverage.

Meyiwa was buried at the Heroes Acre cemetery in Chesterville, KwaZulu-Natal on 1 November 2014. Describing the funeral proceedings, the Business Day Live writes, ‘The coffin, draped in the South African flag, was followed by KwaZulu-Natal premier Senzo Mchunu, SA Football Association president Danny Jordaan, Premiership and Orlando Pirates players among other dignitaries.’(2) Members of the South African Police Service carried Meyiwa’s coffin to the podium during the service that was attended, according to The Citizen, by at least 30 000 people. His grave lies next to anti-apartheid journalist Nat Nakasa, who was reburied at the Heroes Acre cemetery in September 2014, 49 years after he had been buried in New York.

A few days after the funeral, television and radio presenter, Gareth Cliff, posted a question on a social platform, Twitter, asking “Who’s paying for this massive funeral for ‪#SenzoMeyiwa”. Some Twitter followers were prompt to criticise Cliff, mostly arguing that his question was insensitive to the mourning Meyiwa family and to the nation which had just lost its beloved football captain, while others felt that he had asked a valid question. Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula entered the fray on 3 November 2014.

According to Independent on Line (IOL) Mbalula said that Cliff had insinuated that Meyiwa was not deserving of a state funeral, tweeting “Why does SA allow this disrespect in the name of independent thinking. Why are we so gullible?” He wrote further: “Who payed for Verwoerd’s funeral? And who payed for PW Botha’s funeral? It is the state? Did they deserve it? We never asked bcos we respect the DD,” he said, adding it was the prerogative of provincial governments to “ask and motivate to the president why their own heroes should be given partial official funerals”. In Meyiwa’s case, the KwaZulu-Natal government had made such a request, he said.
The subsequent uproar became more about the race and Cliff perceived disrespect than about the question itself, pointing to the raw wounds of the many South Africans who continue to contextualise and employ race as an analytic tool. These are citizens whose reaction to criticism is arguably guided by whether the condemnation is articulated by those who share the same racial classification, or not, rather than by the merits of the issue at hand.

Minister Mbalula went on to explain that official state funerals are graded. He wrote that, ‘Senzo and Mulaudzi’s funeral were not full category official funerals. Any province can ask and motivate to the Presidency why their own heroes should be given partial official funerals. The KZN and Limpopo government deemed it fit to give these stars provincial official funerals. It was an official funeral; official funerals are paid for by the state.’

Cliff’s question may have been read out of context and is at worst inconsiderate. It is also questionable that he commented on the expenditure of Meyiwa’s funeral, yet he was silent with respect to reports about the over-spending and fraud related to the former president Nelson Mandela’s funeral. (3) However, subtracting the tone, timing, and who posed the question, there is substance in Cliff’s question particularly about how much the government chooses to spend, on whom and for what? These are pertinent questions at a time when the financial implications of Nelson Mandela’s funeral, reported to have cost about R200 million, were still fresh in the minds of many and the matter of expenditure on President Zuma’s private residence is disrupting Parliament.

Aside from the issue of cost, the decision to allow official provincial funerals for Meyiwa and Mulaudzi by the government raised questions about who is entitled to state funerals, and on what grounds As Minister Mbalula said on Twitter, provincial governments are entitled to nominate anyone for a state funeral, but the criteria for this are not clear. Although this statement was presumably was intended to suggest that the government does not discriminate with regards to whom it awards a state funeral, it demonstrates very the political nature of this form of commemoration. It may be an inclusive act, but it may also be divisive.
The decision may also prompt citizens to ask why others were not accorded the same honour or whether every national team captain or holder of an Olympic medal from different sporting codes will receive an official provincial funeral in the future.

In the absence of clearly defined criteria and transparent decision-making processes this matter will continue to rear its head every time our country loses anyone deemed by one group or another to have been a hero.

End notes

(1) Times Live, Zuma declares official funerals for Meyiwa, Mulaudzi, 31 October, 2014
(2) Business Day Live, Hero’s welcome for Senzo Meyiwa, 1 November 2014
(3) See The News 24, Report Details Mandela Funeral Overspending, 2 July 2014

Dineo Skosana is an Archval Platform correspondent based in Johannesburg.

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