The high cost of repatriating loved ones after death

Mbongeni Nxumalo* (28) was found dead by a security guard outside his flat in Yeoville, Johannesburg, in February.

The guard said he had initially thought Nxumalo had passed out after a night of heavy drinking with friends. But after several hours he informed the family about their son's lifeless body. The family later learnt from a postmortem that Nxumalo had died from internal bleeding caused by severe assault.

His friends told family members that Nxumalo, a Zimbabwean national who had been living in South Africa for the past five years, was assaulted at a shebeen over non-payment of debts.

Like many young Zimbabweans in search of greener pastures, Nxumalo had moved to Johannesburg after his secondary education at Mzingwane High School, a government school in Esigodini.

Johannesburg, with its lure of flashy cars and a luxury lifestyle, had unfortunately ended in tragedy for the Nxumalo family, which is now left with a pile of debts to pay off, a dead son and the cost of transporting him to Zimbabwe for burial.


Transporting a dead body to Zim-babwe from South Africa can cost from R10 000 to R20 000, depending on the undertaker.

Good business
Business is good for funeral parlours as more Zimbabweans settle permanently in South Africa with their families, and some Zimbabwean-based parlours have opened branches in South Africa to tap into the emerging market.

Falakhe Funeral Parlour and Kings and Queens Real Funeral Services are both headquartered in Bulawayo. They have been operating satellite offices in Johannesburg for the past three years to cater for their Zimbabwean clients. 

Kings and Queens charges R10 000 to transport a corpse across the border. Further charges are added depending on the final destination of the body.

"We process the documentation to bring the body to Zimbabwe, and then provide the family with a Toyota Quantum minibus to transport the mourners, and the body will be on a trailer. If there are more special needs, we put an extra charge," said Thenjiwe Ncube from Kings and Queens.

Offering a similar package to its rival, Falakhe offers "special features" to its funeral package that include buying groceries for the bereaved family to be used during the wake and providing grave digging services in Zimbabwe.

Burial societies
But as a way to mitigate the high costs of transporting a loved one across the border, Zimbabweans living in South Africa have resorted to starting their own burial societies.

"Whenever someone from our home area comes to work in South Africa, we sell the idea of a burial society to them. The joining fee is R1 000 and the monthly subscription is R50. 

When a member dies, his or her family is given a single payout, and when the member is buried the surviving society members reimburse the money by paying R100 as a recapitalisation fee," said Misheck Nyoni, who has been living in South Africa for nearly 10 years. He is also Nxumalo's uncle.

Families left behind in Zimbabwe are also catching on to the trend of burial societies for its diaspora population, with monthly contributions being made of between $20 and $50. The money raised is used to pay for the funeral, the coffin and the repatriation costs. Some of the money is also used to buy food for the wake in Zimbabwe.

One official at the immigration office at Beitbridge estimated that nearly 100 bodies from South Africa are repatriated to Zimbabwe every week through the border post.

"The number of Zimbabweans dying in South Africa is very high. Most of the funeral cortège's cross into Zimbabwe on Friday for funerals at the weekends," the immigration official said.

Not all in the diaspora can afford to use a funeral home, and some people resort to illegal repatriation. An urban legend tells of a Kwekwe, Midlands, bus driver who agreed to transport a corpse to the town — for a price, of course. The body was wrapped up in a carpet and declared at the border as a carpet. All went well until the driver arrived at his destination and unloaded the "carpet". Overcome by emotion, the deceased's relatives started wailing, which attracted the attention of a policeman, who wanted to know why they were mourning over a carpet. The driver, the story goes, was subsequently arrested.

Whether or not this urban legend is true, what is certain is that, with two million to four million Zimbabweans living in South Africa, death will remain big business.

*Not his real name

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Ray Ndlovu
Ray Ndlovu has been a correspondent for the Mail & Guardian in Zimbabwe since 2009. His areas of interest include politics and business. With a BSc honours degree in journalism and media studies, Ray aspires to become a media mogul.

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