Cape Town - Untrained staff have been conducting post-mortems for the Gauteng health department since 2006, the health portfolio committee heard on Tuesday morning.
The revelations were made when director general of the national health department, Malebona Precious Matsoso, briefed the committee on the ongoing strike by forensic staff in Gauteng, chairperson Mary-Ann Dunjwa told News24 on Wednesday.
"They [the national health department] have picked up that there are people that have not been trained, so obviously they have been doing the work [of conducting post-mortems]," Dunjwa said.
"So they [the untrained staff] are to be trained…"
The Gauteng health department has previously denied allegations that untrained staff conducted post-mortems, saying they were merely assisting trained pathologists and doctors in preparing post-mortems.
However, when Dunjwa was asked whether untrained staff conducted post-mortems themselves and had not just assisted trained pathologists, she replied: ''Yes, some of them.
"They have performed some of the work they were not trained [to do]."
Dunjwa said the department also raised "challenges" of forensic staff not receiving adequate protective clothing to conduct post-mortems.
Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Patricia Kopane, a member of the health portfolio committee, said Matsoso gave the committee a "history" of how the crisis developed in South African forensic services.
Forensic services were transferred from the police to the Department of Health in 2006, Matsoso explained.
When forensic services were transferred to the Department of Health only two provinces remained under the police, Kopane told News24.
"There was hierarchy; there were professional people and everything," Kopane said.
The Western Cape and Eastern Cape are believed to be the only provinces that remained with a hierarchal structure.
"The other provinces came with a flat structure: There's no hierarchy; there's nothing. You are a cleaner; you are a pathologist; you are in the same structure. That's what they did," Kopane said.
She said some pathologists resigned while others passed away, which reduced the number of pathologists in the public sector.
"Apparently these other lay people [unqualified people], they also started to do this job they are not trained to do like dissecting the bodies and everything," Kopane said.
"They learnt from the pathologists. Actually, that's how the skills were transferred so that's why later they felt they are competent, they can do the job, despite that they did not have the qualification to do so."
Kopane confirmed that the unqualified staff conducted post-mortems without trained pathologist supervision.
She questioned why it took the department 10 years to identify the crisis.
"How many people can come back and say, what if my autopsy was performed by one of these unqualified people? What if it was not genuine?" she said.
"[This] means people are in jail for the wrong reasons or the results that were given to us were wrong."
On Thursday, News24 reported that Nehawu and Hospersa said that their members - untrained forensic staff - had been conducting post-mortems for well over 10 years.
'Some of them are only employed as drivers; they are now cutting bodies'
On Monday, Hospersa spokesperson Suzan Ntlatleng said some of their members only obtained 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 said.
"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."
Ntlatleng said staff members were allegedly forced to sign affidavits in which they lied that a trained pathologist had conducted the post-mortems.
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 on Monday afternoon.
"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," she 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 10 years would have to be conducted to determine wrongful convictions.
The national and provincial department of health did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday morning.
The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPSCA) has not responded to emails and telephone calls from News24 since Thursday.
Kopane said she is in the process of finalising a letter to the Public Protector requesting a full investigation into the crisis.
She said she will additionally write to the Human Rights Commission.
"We really have to go to the deeper thing of this," Kopane said.