Omar's death, burial evoke contradictions

WHAT happens when a humble man dies? What happens when that man was a cabinet minister in South Africa? What happens if that man was a Muslim?

This was the dilemma faced by the organisers of the funeral of Transport Minister and former justice minister Abdullah Mohammed Omar, who died at a Constantia clinic just after 4 o'clock yesterday morning.

Muslim custom dictates that a person should be buried by sunset on the day of his death, unless he dies too late into the day.

This posed all kinds of problems for people who felt that Omar deserved to have a proper funeral; and for others who felt that, because he was a cabinet minister, he deserved a state funeral.

Within three hours of his death, at 7 am, a hastily put together committee was ready to release details of Omar's funeral. There would be a final greeting at his home in Rylands Estate, as is customary in Muslim culture, followed by a public service at the Vygieskraal Stadium, about 1km from Omar's house.

Ebrahim Rasool, the ANC leader in the Western Cape and the "programme director" at the funeral, explained that this was no ordinary funeral.

"Comrade Dullah was a Muslim, so we are following all the procedures according to the Shariah (Muslim customary law). But Dullah was also a leader of the people and needs to be buried in a proper way. However, Dullah also told us before he died that he wanted to be buried in a humble way. He did not want any pomp and ceremony.

"This is why," Rasool said, "we have walked all the way from the house and Dullah will be buried in a kafaan (Muslim coffin), as any other Muslim would be buried."

Rasool pointed out that President Thabo Mbeki had also walked the distance from Omar's house to the stadium.

Mbeki and his deputy, Jacob Zuma, were at the head of the pallbearers carrying the bier into the stadium.

The tension between the three Dullah Omars (the statesman, the Muslim and the humble person) was felt as the coffin entered the stadium. It is customary for Muslims to share the load and many people had to be prevented from joining in the carrying because the president, his deputy and a host of cabinet ministers were carrying at the time.

In Muslim culture there is no such thing as official pallbearers; all able-bodied men assist in carrying the bier.

There were other tensions. For instance, there were two marquees for very important people. With Muslim funerals there is not normally a VIP tent. Also, because it is customary at Muslim funerals for men and women to be separated, the male and female VIPs had to sit in separate marquees.

But despite these tensions, the funeral was a special occasion with the correct blend of "pomp and ceremony" and humility as requested by Dullah Omar.

Apart from the president, his deputy and almost the entire cabinet, just about anybody who was anybody in South African politics was there, including former president Nelson Mandela, a few of the premiers from all over South Africa, members of parliament, members of provincial legislatures and MECs.

Albertina Sisulu got an honourable mention from ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe, as did former ANC Women's League president Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Among those not mentioned and who were not in the VIP area were former ANC Western Cape leader and disgraced cleric Allan Boesak and former ANC chief whip Tony Yengeni.

Rivonia trialists Ahmed Kathrada and Andrew Mlangeni were among the many dignitaries at the funeral.

As is expected at a funeral of this nature, many promises were made. Among these were that "we will not let Comrade Dullah's memory die" (Motlanthe), and "we commit ourselves never to do anything of which he would be ashamed" (Mbeki).

The funeral went some way towards meeting both those promises.

It was a fitting tribute to a man who carried on living in his own house despite becoming a cabinet minister and who, in Mbeki's words, "never sought to appear in television or the newspapers". 

(First published in City Press on Sunday 14 March 2004)