News & events


03 February 2021

Plastic Bodies, Public Policy and Popular Anger in Rural South Africa

A study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and Walter Sisulu University (WSU) for the Eastern Cape Socio Economic Consultative Council (ECSECC) found that regulations issued under successive nationally declared states of disaster had severely restricted how the bodies of loved ones were handled and buried, which created fear and anguish within local communities.

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Throughout the latter half of 2020, Professor Leslie Bank from the HSRC and Dr Nelly Vuyokazi Sharpley, head of the Department of Social Sciences at WSU, have campaigned for the South African government and the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) to review their recommendations on the management of Covid bodies at funerals. On the 25th January 2021, MAC published a new ruling, which has allowed funerals to “return to normal” and “families to observe their cultural rights”, according to the National Funeral Practitioners Association of South Africa.

On the basis of in-depth research in the rural Eastern Cape, Bank and Sharply have argued that the bagging of bodies and coffins in plastic, as well as the gassing of grave sites, and the levels of police aggression at rural funerals were unnecessary and violated people’s cultural rights, especially given that the World Health Organisation (WHO) had stated as early as April 2020 that there was no evidence to suggest that Covid bodies were infectious.

In April 2020, the two scholars approached the Eastern Cape Socio-economic Consultative Council (ECSECC) in the Office of the Premier in the Eastern Cape for some support to conduct a qualitative investigation of the impact of the stringent government Covid protocols for funeral in the rural Eastern Cape. A small award was made, and soon a WSU and HSRC team of fieldworkers, locked down in rural communities, were using their local networks, home-based observations and social media connections to document the impact of the funeral protocols on social practice and cultural rights in rural communities. 

The research found that, while communities were doing their best to comply with the government’s rules, especially because they feared arrest and the closure of their ritual events, there was a high level of anxiety and insecurity within families about the way the regulations restricted their cultural rights and prevented families and communities from viewing and engaging with the deceased in cultural appropriate ways. In their report, Closing the Gate: Death, Dignity and Distress in the Rural Eastern Cape,  Bank and Sharply argued for the co-production of a respectful and practical “people’s science” of Covid that would better manage the risks of the pandemic, while embracing the rights of rural people to maintain dignified social and cultural lives.

After presenting a comprehensive report for the Office of the Premier in the Eastern Cape, the two scholars engaged in an extensive public awareness campaign which involved producing more than a dozen op-ed articles on topics like people’s science, funeral practices and cultural rights. In addition, Nelly Sharpley appeared on almost every national TV and radio channel in August and September to campaign for a greater appreciation of rural people and their cultural rights. The two scholars also addressed the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders and the Eastern Cape Department of Health, where they argued for the government to stop creating panic and fear around Covid corpses and to review of the “bio-medical fix” that underpinned the funeral protocols. 

Bank and Sharpley, whose book Covid and Custom in Rural South Africa, will be published by Hurst Press later in 2021 were delighted to hear that on the 25th January that the Medical Advisory Council had reversed its ruling on the treatment of dead Covid bodies. The decision was made on the basis of mounting pressure on the state, especially as many families across the Eastern Cape exhumed the plasticised Covid in December and were secretly reburying them to “free the spirit”. 

Professor Leslie Bank and Dr Nelly Sharply believe their detailed research and activism, especially amongst government officials and traditional leaders in the Eastern Cape, also played a critical role in this policy review as it was the critical voice from this province that was heard most loudly.

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