Last year, the Gauteng health department recorded 1 173 unidentified bodies in the province’s 11 forensic pathology service mortuaries. The mortuary in Germiston on the East Rand recorded the most unidentified bodies with 400, followed by Johannesburg with 169, while Pretoria had 117 and Diepkloof in Soweto had 103.
DA member of the provincial legislature Jack Bloom said these were all deaths thought to be due to unnatural causes, which was why they ended up in government mortuaries.
“If they don’t have any form of identification on them, it is difficult to contact their families. Many of these deceased are probably foreigners with no local families. Tragically, in some cases the body is identified but is unclaimed because the family cannot afford to bury them,” said Bloom. He added that government tried not to keep bodies for more than 30 days as they may run out of capacity and space.
According to Paul Morule, the CEO of Gauteng Pathology Services, various attempts are made to identify the deceased.
“When attempting to identify the deceased or finding the next of kin, information is sent to the SA Police Service (SAPS) or the media on how the deceased is suspected to have died, where the remains were found, what time, which day, month or year, what season, weather conditions, and landmarks. Any marks or tattoos on the body and looks, what the deceased was wearing, what was in the deceased’s possession, a photo of the deceased is often very helpful,” said Morule.
Even though the 1 173 number of unidentified bodies may seem high, Morule said the capacity in the country, especially in Gauteng, had been fairly reliable to keep the number of unidentified bodies at a reasonable level.
According to findings of a retrospective review done of bodies in the Salt River Mortuary in Cape Town published in the SA Medical Journal, identification in South Africa “is primarily performed through visual confirmation by the next-of-kin or a legal guardian” or secondary identifiers which include scars or tattoos.
Where in some cases visual confirmation proved challenging, fingerprints or DNA testing may be done to identify the deceased”.
But what if there is no body?
For some, such as Yibanathi Mrawuzeli’s family from Rondebult on the East Rand, the process can be cumbersome. He has been missing for two years.
The disappearance of Yibanathi Mrawuzeli
Two years ago on February 20, Mrawuzeli (29), was diagnosed with acute psychosis and admitted to the Thelle Mogoerane Hospital in Vosloorus, Ekurhuleni.
“On February 21 we got a call from the hospital telling us that my son had disappeared, they didn’t know where he was,” said Mrawuzeli’s mother Pholela Mketsi.
According to Mketsi, hospital staff said her son was fastened on his bed and they did not know how he untied himself and disappeared.
She said they had looked for him at more than five government hospitals and mortuaries in Gauteng, including the busiest mortuaries in Germiston and Johannesburg.
“Going to different government facilities to try and identify my son has been a very traumatic and heartbreaking experience for me. We looked all over without any success,” said Mketsi.
In early March 2019, after posting photos of him on social media platforms, the family received an anonymous call telling them that Mrawuzeli’s remains were at the Bertha Gxowa Hospital in Germiston.
“This person said he was an employee at Bertha Gxowa, but decided to remain anonymous. He assured me that the body he saw in the mortuary was the same person we had posted on social media,” she said.
The family went to the Bertha Gxowa Hospital mortuary but did not find Mrawuzeli’s body there. When they traced the telephone number, they found that the person has called from the Thelle Mogoerane Hospital.
“That was a most painful and confusing time for us. We did not know who or what to believe anymore,” she added.
Mketsi said they also provided DNA samples to the Pretoria Forensic Pathology Services to match with unidentified bodies there.
Gauteng health department responds
According to the Gauteng department of health, the patient absconded while waiting to be assessed by a medical doctor. They searched for him in the hospital but didn’t find him.
Spokesperson Kwara Kekana said: “Transport was arranged by the hospital to visit different areas where the family thought the patient could be as well as other hospitals. They were accompanied by the hospital’s social worker and nurse.”
Responding to the anonymous call, Kekana said: “They were transported to the Bertha Gxowa Hospital with a nurse from the facility for a follow up.”
After attempts were made to find Mrawuzeli, Kekana said the matter was handed over to the SAPS and a missing person case was opened.
Mrawuzeli is still missing and his family does not know if he is dead or alive.
The challenges of bodies without names
In an article published in the journal Forensic Science International: Reports, researchers from the University of Cape Town write that challenges with identification of bodies can be attributed to several factors. One of them is South Africa’s high murder rate with more than 15 000 murders committed annually in the last decade.
The high number of undocumented foreign nationals and labour migration between rural and urban centres all made these people vulnerable to crime. So when they go missing, this was often not immediately reported, the researchers noted.
As a result, the remains could be discovered after a long time, where post-mortems could not be done because of decomposition or skeletonisation.
In the book Forensic Anthropology and Medicine, João Pinheiro defines skeletonisation as the final stage of decomposition when all soft tissue is removed from the bones and when a corpse has decayed to the point that the skeleton is exposed, which makes identification challenging.
Regulations to the National Health Act, on the management of human remains, stipulate that when a body is not identified within 30 days after death, it becomes government’s responsibility to arrange a pauper’s burial.
In an earlier interview with the SABC, Dr Modupe Modisane, deputy director-general of Gauteng Hospital Services, said that unclaimed bodies are buried in marked graves. This meant that should a family show up after the burial, the body could be exhumed for them to do a proper burial said it was a misconception that these bodies are buried in unmarked graves.
According to Morule, “internet-based information is being introduced, and it is hoped [this] will assist in promoting earlier identification of unknown deceased [persons]”.
Plans and promises
To curb these and other challenges many people go through to find and identify their loved ones, the Gauteng health department has for a few years been developing an internet identification system. It is meant to record, track and report demographic data of the deceased and generate autopsy and toxicology reports.
“We hope that the new identification system will help more families like us instead of going up and down spending money on transport without success,” Mketsi said. “People will just identify their loved ones online before they go to that facility.”
But according to Bloom, the system was first mooted in 2006 and the former health MEC Qedani Mahlangu promised that it would be up and running in 2016. This did not happen.
Asked about this system in the Gauteng legislature in 2019, former health MEC Bandile Masuku promised it would be up and running as soon as the mortuary information system was set – in October 2019.
“The internet site is contemplated to be operational at the beginning of 2020/21 financial year,” Masuku said at the time.
This, too, did not happen.
In March this year, current Health MEC Nomathemba Mokgethi said the development of this system was at “an advanced stage”.
Mokgethi said: “The handover process of the Forensic Pathology Services Information Management System from the e-Government unit and the developer to the Gauteng health department has started.”
There might be hope for mothers such as Mketsi as this system would also cater for missing persons.
“Implementation of Forensic Pathology Information Management System, whose second phase entails the development of missing person website, will make the identification of unknown and unclaimed bodies much easier,” Mokgethi said.
Bodies delivered to the government mortuaries and not identified after seven days would be listed on the internet identification system.
“Special features on the body [such] as tattoos, clothing and possessions will be used in such cases and not the body itself,” Morule told Spotlight.
* This article was produced by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest.