SA grim reality: ‘Overflowing’ mortuaries and mass pauper burials

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South Africa has to deal with thousands of unidentified bodies each year. Some of them are accident or murder victims, others are discovered with no identity or fake identities. Have you ever wondered what happens to them?

In Gauteng alone, an average of 1, 000 cadavers per year end up unidentified.

“It’s incredibly high – 1, 000 people being unidentified in just one province,” professor Jeanine Vellema, the head of forensic pathology at Johannesburg’s Wits University who is also in charge of Gauteng’s 11 public morgues, stated. “The facility with the highest percentage is Johannesburg because of the migrant and immigrant population.”

The statistics confirm that one in every ten bodies at the busiest morgues in Johannesburg is unidentified.

According to Trisha-Jean Mahon, a forensic practitioner, about 40% of the 16 or so bodies a month are positively identified at the Hillbrow mortuary thanks to a team of volunteer forensic practitioners from the Wits medical school. They volunteer to spend two days a week trying to investigate where the bodies came from and who they might be.

“It’s a very good success rate. When we initiated our project, we were under the impression that we would probably get none,” Mahon claimed.

The cadavers are examined and all the data, such as fingerprints, dental patterns, tattoos, tribal marks, or any distinctive scars, are collected and thoroughly documented. The problem is that for the undocumented foreigners there is no official paperwork to match the collected data to.

Sometimes, the puzzle is solved thanks to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It provides reports of missing individuals from the neighbouring countries, such as Zimbabwe or Mozambique.

“An unidentified body doesn’t really tell us anything about their origin,” Stephen Fonseca, a forensic expert with the ICRC, explained. “The authorities are overwhelmed… There is only so much space in the mortuary to hold the remains. It’s really tough for them to manage these volumes.”

Every month, the bodies that spend for up to three months in the public mortuaries without being identified or claimed are buried without any ceremony. In these mass pauper burials, 3 metre deep graves accommodate three to four flimsy coffins stacked one on top of another.

The coffins are only marked with an identity number and a basic description of the body by gender and skin colour, like “white adult female” or “black male adult.”

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