Entrepreneurship in South Africa's emergent township funeral industry

Lee, Rebekah. 2015. Entrepreneurship in South Africa's emergent township funeral industry. In: Ute Röschenthaler and Dorothea Schultz, eds. Cultural Entrepreneurship in Africa. London: Routledge, pp. 121-138. ISBN 9781138851665 [Book Section]

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Abstract or Description

This chapter seeks to provide a historical and ethnographic perspective on the rise of the funeral industry and the role of funeral entrepreneurs in post-apartheid South Africa. It draws from collected life histories, interviews and participant observation of undertakers and their employees at work, largely in Cape Town’s major African townships of Khayelitsha and Gugulethu. The emergence of African-run funeral parlours can be traced to a convergence of factors in the transitional and post-apartheid periods, including democratic transition, deregulation and the rise of a credit culture, the explosion of formal and informal funeral insurance, the repercussions of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the sharpening of ethnic allegiances in South African society. I argue that entrepreneurs’ previous employment histories powerfully shaped their entry into and involvement in the funeral industry, in particular their emphasis on transport and mobility across long distances. It is the leveraging of social capital and cultural fluency, allied to a sensitive affinity to the demands of their mobile and technologically astute customer base, which characterize entrepreneurship in this particular popular economy. Ultimately, rather than viewing them as corrupt profiteers of the ‘death business’, I argue that funeral undertakers occupy a more complex and complicated role as influential mediators of the death process.

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Book Section


Funeral industry, Funeral entrepreneurs, Funeral parlours, South Africa, Entrepreneurship, Post-apartheid

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24 November 2015Published

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Date Deposited:

18 Jan 2019 13:07

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 17:05



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