Gauteng health dept denies that drivers, cleaners are conducting post-mortems

2017-06-19 22:28
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Johannesburg – The Gauteng health department on Monday strongly denied allegations that untrained forensic staff members have been conducting post-mortems for the past ten years. 

This comes as a backlog of 212 bodies is in a queue to undergo forensic examinations at Gauteng mortuaries, caused by a strike by forensic staff since June 8. 

Provincial spokesperson for the department, Khutso Rabothata, told News24 that the striking employees did not perform any examinations, but merely assist trained pathologists and doctors in preparing post-mortems. 

He said the department was negotiating with unions Hospersa and Nehawu to ensure forensic services returned to capacity as soon as possible.

"Look, we are still engaging with the workers and their representatives, using means such as the bargaining council… we are awaiting an outcome. There might be a response this afternoon," Rabothatha said.

On Thursday, News24 reported that Nehawu and Hospersa said that their members - untrained forensic staff - had been conducting post-mortems for well over ten years.

At the time, Nehawu spokesperson Khaya Xaba said union members were not striking, but merely doing the work described in their contractual agreements with the department.

He said workers were demanding pathologic accreditation and sufficient remuneration for the work they had been doing. 

Hospersa spokesperson Suzan Ntlatleng reiterated Xaba’s statements on Monday, saying this particular issue had been raised with the provincial department three years ago.

"These people are the category of staff and some of them only have matric. They were brought in to identify bodies. Later on, they were cleaning bodies. What is happening now is that they are forced to do the entire autopsy," Ntlatleng told News24. 

"Some of them are only employed as drivers, they are now cutting bodies. We have cleaners who were surrounded by the bodies and, over the years, started to get an idea of what’s happening, and started helping."

Key evidence allegedly destroyed

Ntlatleng said staff members were allegedly forced to sign affidavits in which they lied that a trained pathologist had conducted the autopsies. 

"This doesn’t only occur in Gauteng. This is a countrywide issue. In Cape Town, you can go to Tygervalley and see for yourself.”

She said the protesting staff did not wish to talk to the media for fear of being victimised.

Forensic science expert David Klatzow said it is highly likely that untrained officials were conducting post-mortems in the public service.

"You have a situation where untrained people, taken from the street... dissect the body [in preparation] for the pathologist. By that time, vital evidence has been taken away because of poor examination," Klatzow said. 

Klatzow, who was an expert witness in the Oscar Pistorius trial, used the examination surrounding murdered Franziska Blöchliger as an example of untrained pathology staff. 

He said that Blöchliger's clothing, which was preserved by police, was offered back to the parents by forensic officials. 

"What you are telling me is you have people who should’ve preserved key evidence, who basically destroyed it," he said. 

Klatzow said, while "assistants" were not supposed to take samples for the testing of drugs and alcohol, he was almost certain it occurred in the public sector.

Klatzow said if Ntlatleng’s claim was true that staff members were forced to lie in affidavits, it was a criminal act. 

"Whoever is forcing them is also complicit in the criminal act… to lie under oath is a criminal act," he said. 

Mortuaries were filled to capacity because of poor legislation that required unnecessary mandatory autopsies, Klatzow said. 

"For example, if you die of natural causes in the public sector, you are required to undergo an autopsy."

'Poor and vulnerable who get short end'

Wits University visiting associate law professor, James Grant, expressed concern that if the allegations were true, it might affect thousands of court cases. 

"If you are talking about somebody who has the means, who has the big guns, they very often might call the pathologist [to testify], and [they] air the lack of qualifications," he said. 

"It is the poor and the vulnerable who get the short end. They are the people who have to rely on the State in dealing with court cases; they wouldn’t have… to call these things into question."

South African law permits evidence in the form of post-mortem results from pathologists, which is usually never challenged, Grant said. 

"Because of bad post-mortems, the State [might have] lost. Because of bad post-mortems, people [might have been] charged and convicted," he said. 

Grant said prosecutors usually used post-mortems to decide whether or not to prosecute.

He said if the allegations were true, an entire review of court cases for the past ten years would have to be conducted to determine wrongful convictions. 

Democratic Alliance portfolio committee on health representative, Patricia Kopane, told News24 that the party would write to the Public Protector to ask for a full-scale investigation into the matter. 

The party would also request that the provincial and national health departments make representations in front of the portfolio committee to explain the situation. 

Skills shortage

Kopane said the crisis highlighted the problem of skills shortage in the country and called on the national department to remedy the situation. 

National Department of Health spokesperson Joe Maila said Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi was in Gauteng to find a solution to the ongoing strike. He said the provincial department should be contacted for all additional enquiries. 

National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Luvuyo Mfaku referred all enquiries to the provincial health and police authorities. 

In a written reply, provincial police spokesperson Lungelo Dlamini said mortuaries fell under the provincial health department. 

Neither the chairperson of the portfolio committee of health, Mary-Ann Dunjwa, nor the Health Professions Council of South Africa has responded to emails and telephone calls from News24 since Thursday. 

Following a High Court ruling on Saturday, which forced the Gauteng health department to perform a post-mortem on a Muslim individual, no other Muslim burials have been delayed, activist Yusuf Abramjee said on Monday morning. 

The South African National Defence Force was deployed to Gauteng on June 14 to assist the province with its mortuary backlog. 


Read more on:    johannesburg  |  health

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