One in 10 people who pass through Gauteng’s mortuaries is not identified.
Their bodies languish for months in overcrowded and under-resourced forensic pathology service facilities, flesh slowly decomposing because a fridge can only slow the inevitable decay for so long.
Eventually, when no one comes for them and they cannot safely be kept any longer, they are carted off en masse to a public graveyard, buried without names, and with no one to mourn them.
Once in the ground, their chances of being identified and exhumed dwindle to almost nothing.
So do the chances of their families learning what happened, and the chances that the guilty party — if there is one — will be brought to book.
Profesor Ericka L’Abbe, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Pretoria, holds out a skull that is now part of the university’s teaching collection and has been without its skin for a number of years. She points out the star-burst impacts on its surface, which have been glued back together.
“They took out his face. He has at least 10 impacts on his cranium alone … So there is this massive blunt trauma to the head and, in this case, to his hands. They broke his hands as well.”
She sighs and looks up. “But we will never know who this person is. And if you don’t know who they are, you don’t know who did it. You can get away with murder in this country — you just have to throw him in the veld. Or in this case, down a water pipe … All you need is a brick.
“It breaks my heart that no one is looking for him.”
He is not alone. Each year, between 1 300 and 1 600 people in Gauteng are added to the already long list of South Africa’s unidentified dead, at a rate of three people a day. And that is just one province.
“It’s not only in Gauteng,” says Professor Jeanine Vellema, chief specialist of South Gauteng’s eight mortuaries. It is just that data is available for Gauteng, but not for other provinces. “Unidentified bodies are a problem in South Africa — and Africa for that matter.”
The journey to an unmourned, anonymous end begins at a mortuary, or as Vellema emphatically corrects, a “medico-legal laboratory” or “forensic pathology service”. These official names imply they are part of a legal investigation.
Johannesburg’s Hillbrow medicolegal laboratory is a busy place on any given Monday. In the shadow of the Constitutional Court, which guards the right to life and human dignity, 30 to 40 bodies are waiting for autopsies.
The body fridges, already full to bursting, strain under their numbers.
Last year more than 3 000 bodies entered the peeling yellow walls of the Hillbrow facility, one of the busiest in the country. This year will probably be the same.
Sometimes there is a family waiting in the reception area, a glum room with rows of metal chairs. If not, the difficult process of attempting to identify the body starts.
At the forensic pathology service, the job of its staff is to find out how someone died, not investigate who they are — that is the police’s job. But as the bodies fill their fridges, they are looking for ways to address this unrelenting deluge.
The forensic staff take facial photos and collect fingerprints and hand this information over to the South African Police Service’s (SAPS’s) investigating officer. After a few days, if no one has come forward to identify the body, the police check the prints against local criminal records and a national database. If that yields no results the prints are sent to the department of home affairs.
Every South African citizen over the age of 16 is supposed to swap their fingerprint data for an identity document, so if the home affairs database shows no matches, the assumption is that the person was a foreigner.
But there is no proof or data to back up this widespread assumption, or even a breakdown of the causes of death for thousands of unidentified people.
If it is true that many, perhaps most, of the unidentified dead are foreigners, this is a tragedy in itself.
“I don’t think we realise, as South Africans, what our fellow Africans go through — it’s appalling,” says Candice Hansmeyer, a special forensic pathologist at the Johannesburg facility. “People are coming, seeking new lives, they have nothing, and they die, and nobody really cares. But they’re important — they’re somebody’s child, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s mother, somebody’s wife.”
The trouble with even estimating how many of the unidentified dead are foreigners starts with the obvious problem that we do not know who they are.
“Scientifically, there is no way of knowing — I can’t do a magic test, and say, ‘Okay, this person is from Angola’,” says Stephen Fonseca, the International Committee of the Red Cross’s forensic co-ordinator for Africa.
We do not even know how many foreign nationals are in South Africa, let alone Gauteng. The 2011 official census puts the total number at 2.2-million, but the real figure is probably higher. According to the United Nations, South Africa is home to the largest number of foreign nationals in sub-Saharan Africa. Complicating matters, many are in South Africa illegally — though again we do not know just how many.
Even if they are here legally, they may have assumed a different name. Sometimes a body will have two or three identity documents on them, Vellema says. “They’ll have a Zimbabwean one, a South African one, and a Mozambican one. And we have to pick a name.”
There are two sides to this coin: a large number of unidentified people means a lot of missing people. This is the case in South Africa, but is an issue that spans a continent. People cross borders, but data does not. There is no continental or regional database for missing people — or for found bodies. In some countries, there is not even a national register.
“If you look across Africa, and ask how many national missing person’s programmes are there, you’re not going to find too many,” says Fonseca, who is working to support forensics in African countries.
South Africa is an anomaly on the continent: it has a robust forensic system, a Bureau of Missing Persons, national databases in both the SAPS and the department of home affairs, universities teaching forensic medicine, and qualified, highly experienced staff.
But this system is groaning under the sheer weight of numbers: Gauteng will see 15 000 to 16 500 cases of unnatural death annually and identification requires investigation. One in 10 will ultimately remain unidentified.
The police are aware of the problem and its extent. Major General Charles Johnson, acting national divisional commissioner for the detective service, issued a strict directive for unidentified bodies in September last year. It says there had been “numerous” complaints that unidentified bodies have been buried without proper investigation, “which caused much embarrassment and taints the image of the service and in particular that of the detective service”.
Hansmeyer stops leafing through that day’s case files — there are four bodies waiting for her in the autopsy room down stairs — and looks up, her lips pulled into a tight line.
“The priority [for the police] is the living, and I’m not pointing fingers because we all have this problem: We’re overburdened, we’re under-resourced…. You’re also dealing with burnout and fatigue among the police: there aren’t enough hours in the day, and days in the year to get around to doing everything. One has to prioritise,” she says.
In 2015-2016, there were 18 673 murders in South Africa, a 4.9% increase from 2014-2015. Citizens and society demand action, and the police have to choose between chasing criminals or identifying mouldering corpses.
Sometimes a passer-by discovers a decomposed or burnt body in the veld, with no identity documents. Time and weather have transformed their clothes into unrecognisable tatters.
“Where do you start?” asks a senior police official (who spoke on condition that he was not named) tiredly. “We take the body to the mortuary, and if no one comes to claim them, we bury them.”
“Veld bodies” are often a dead-ending labyrinth.
A complete and trustworthy list of missing persons to which bodies could be matched would help, but does not exist. Often people do not want to come forward or do not want to report someone as missing.
“Some people think it is not going to help, they don’t have trust in police and the justice system,” the officer says.
But there are other reasons why a body can be lowered, with two other occupied coffins, into a single six-foot-deep hole in Doornkop, the most recent cemetery to take unidentified and unclaimed bodies in Johannesburg.
It took 23 requests over the course of 18 months to secure an official interview with the police. From silence to a no-reasons-given “no”, the police did not want to engage with queries on the matter until, with no reasons given, we got a “yes”.
Brigadier Helena Ras heads up the SAPS’s Victim Identification Centre (VIC) in Pretoria, with — among other things — the monstrous task of dealing with mass fatalities.
A mass death is defined as any incident in which more than five people are killed. These incidents are so common in South Africa that they seldom warrant the top story on a radio news bulletin and rarely make national newspaper front pages: a minibus taxi collides with a car; a shack fire spreads through a township; a building collapses.
Once the dust settles, someone has to sort through the wreckage and rubble, and systematically investigate and identify each body and inform the family.
Look no further than the N1 highway, the route between Johannesburg and Beitbridge on the Limpopo river. In the early hours of August 13 2015, a minibus hit a truck and caught alight with 12 people trapped inside; on May 2 2016, there were nine fatalities when a taxi hit an overturned trailer and caught alight.
“Whenever there is an accident like that, you will get the whole engine on fire and you sit with charred bodies,” says Ras from the VIC’s headquarters in Pretoria. Case files in boxes line one side of her office. There are no passenger lists on taxis. “It is not like a plane or a bus.”
That particular stretch of road is a link between the border and economic opportunities in Gauteng’s cities, so it carries a disproportionate number of migrants. Because of the physical damage sustained in serious accidents, it is often difficult to create a facial reconstruction of what the victim looked like. And although the VIC takes DNA samples, there is nothing to compare DNA with unless a family member comes forward.
The difficulties do not just arise with migrants. Someone living in Tembisa may catch a taxi into nearby Johannesburg. He could die en route, for whatever reason — heart attack, knifing, traffic accident.
“Your medico-legal examination is going to happen in Johannesburg,” says Hillbrow’s Hansmeyer.
“It’s nowhere near Tembisa in the East Rand where your community may know your whereabouts. We can’t see from the information we’re given that the deceased is from the East Rand, and we’re not linked by computer with the Germiston mortuary. So we’ve got all these displaced individuals who are not just displaced from their country, but also their community. Their family will only be able to say: ‘He was last seen catching a taxi to work, and he never came back’,” she says.
Still, in such a case, a sufficiently tenacious family can track down the body. It takes time and resources, but it is possible.
Importantly, it also requires a family that knows where to look — and that actually does look.
Azwidowi Nevondo dreams of bodies, if she is away from her job for too long. “That’s when I know I have to go back to work,” says Nevondo, who has been a forensic officer at Hillbrow medico-legal laboratory for a decade.
She has been at it long enough to notice the patterns that only emerge over time, from the seasonality to the types of bodies that come in.
“Summer time, we receive many decomposed bodies, almost every day, because when it’s hot, you decompose fast,” she says. In winter, shacks catch fire with people sleeping inside them, so there are more burnt corpses.
Once a month, a local-government appointed undertaker comes to the medico-legal laboratory in Hillbrow, and collects the bodies that cannot be held for any longer, sometimes as many as 70 bodies at a time.
A small number are “unclaimed” — which is when the authorities know who the person is, but the family does not claim the body. A smaller number (but one that is rising) are the truly indigent; in this case, families say that they cannot afford a funeral and so the state pays for it. But the largest proportion of the bodies that leave the facility are unidentified.
The law says they must be held for at least a month, but facilities manager Ina Botes tries to keep the bodies as long as possible in the hop that a family will be found.
“It keeps me awake at night that people are going into graves without names. There is a mother somewhere, her son is missing, and in her mind, he is still alive.”
This is happening all over the country and the continent — people think that their family member is still alive, that they have made a life for themselves in Johannesburg, that they are working hard, meeting new people, falling in love.
But instead they were hit repeatedly with a halfbrick, their hands crushed as they tried to protect their head. They were found mummified at the bottom of a drain pipe, and are now a skull in a university professor’s collection.
This is the first story in a three-part series, made possible by a grant from the Taco Kuiper Investigative Journalism Fund, run by Wits Journalism. It first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on January 13, 2017.
If it wasn’t for the smell, no one would know there was a body there.
The savannah grass reaches above the waists of passers-by sweating under the Gauteng summer sun.
If the body has been there for a while, the soft tissue of the face will have decomposed. There is often no identification on the body — no ID, no cellphone, no wallet — and the clothes have been shredded into faded, unrecognisable rags by the elements.
There is no data on how many of Gauteng’s 15 000 to 16 500 annual unnatural deaths are found in this way but the occurrence is common enough for these bodies to have their own moniker among the officials who dread having to deal with them: veld bodies.
Identifying them is important.
A perpetrator of unnatural death could be at large. Families need to know what happened to loved ones. But it is also a near-impossible task.
To confirm someone’s identity so that it will stand up to the scrutiny of the justice system, the police need either fingerprints, a dental match or DNA.
Popular television series such as NCIS and Bones show investigators using science to piece together someone’s identity from the flimsiest of evidence. But real life is not so simple and all too many of Gauteng’s veld bodies remain anonymous.
DNA breaks down when exposed to sunlight or water. Even if it is there, the police need a direct relative to compare it with. Fingerprints disappear along with a person’s soft tissue and the majority of people on the African continent do not have dental records.
So the search for identity must begin elsewhere. But where do you start when you can’t even tell whether the body is that of a male or female?
Such a veld body could end up on the stainless steel gurney of Professor Maryna Steyn, a forensic anthropologist and head of anatomical sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand.
In her laboratory in the bowels of the university’s health sciences building, collections of bones lie spread on counters, fanning out in two-dimensional skeletons.
“If there’s a full body, full tissue, the forensic pathologist can handle it and do an autopsy,” she says.
A forensic pathologist, employed by the department of health in one of the country’s medico-legal laboratories, performs an autopsy to determine the person’s cause of death.
This can be difficult when a corpse is fully, or even partially, decomposed.
A forensic anthropologist starts where the forensic pathologist leaves off and tries to establish from their bones a person’s identity and what happened to them.
“Once it’s skeletonised and decomposed and full of maggots and bits of flesh, it needs to be cleaned, and then from a skeleton we analyse the age, sex, ancestry, trauma,” Steyn says.
For police even to begin the process of identifying a person, they need to know a body’s sex, age and race.
This is more difficult than it sounds.
Sex is fairly easy in adults because women’s child-bearing pelvises give them away. In children, there is little sex differentiation.
It is easier, though, to determine children’s ages from their bones than from those of adults. Because of their rapid skeletal growth in childhood, forensic anthropologists can tell you a child’s age to within a year.
This is useful because South Africa’s forensic anthropologists say they are receiving more children’s bodies than before.
But adults’ skeletons don’t really change until they are in their autumn years, so an age estimate can span decades.
Race is even trickier.
“History is not on our side for this one,” says Professor Ericka L’Abbé, at the University of Pretoria’s Forensic Anthropology Research Centre.
In the past, scientists looked at the skeleton, particularly the skull, to confirm ideas of racial superiority.
Although this racist science has been debunked, there is a stigma attached to acknowledging the biological differences between races.
“But there are differences between races and, while they have no social [value] attachment, what we are socially and how we identify ourselves socially is important for our identification. Our culture has affected our biology in that we are segregated socially, culturally, from various groups,” L’Abbé says.
“You can, with a certain probability, say this unknown person, based on these biological characteristics, will more likely align with this group than these others.”
L’Abbé has spearheaded a drive to create a database of “biological distance” for South Africans. Biological distance is the physical similarity or difference between groups of people who have been separated by time or geography. She says there is biological distance between the skeleton of a white and a black South African, but scientists cannot currently distinguish between different black groups.
South Africa is a complex continuum of race and culture. Race is not a discrete factor, with people fitting into neat boxes.
“It all comes down to a game of statistics,” L’Abbé says with a sigh. “Currently, we can tell if someone is South African but we can’t really tell if they are not South African.”
This is a problem, considering the assumption that the vast majority of Gauteng’s unidentified dead are foreigners.
L’Abbé has been trying to get measurements for Shona, Ndebele and other Zimbabwean groups but she has had little success.
“We have gone to various public hospitals in the country trying to access CT scan data that could assist with this but we have run into problems: while we are asked on every single form in South Africa about our self-identified race, we are not asked it in the hospital setting. It is the only place in which we are not asked it,” she says.
Additionally, people may not admit to being from another country for fear of being discriminated against.
Complicating the matter further, there is also more to race than biological distance. How a person identifies is not necessarily the same as their physical race. Someone’s bones may show that they have strong African heritage, for example, but they identify as coloured.
Both Steyn and L’Abbé are quick to point out that this form of identification — known as presumptive identification — has its limits.
“It doesn’t provide [a definitive] identification, but we’re narrowing down the possible number of people X can be, so rather than being 5 000 people, it might be 500 people,” L’Abbé says.
More research could help to narrow down this number but no one is throwing money at forensic science.
“Nobody is interested in the dead,” says Steyn. “Who will be interested to sponsor any research or a project or a lab that is helping to identify the unidentified?
“It’s not something commercial that’s going to bring in any money or that you can advertise as good work that you have done.”
But, even if it was available, all the data in the world would not in itself fix a system with fundamental problems.
The Hillbrow medico-legal facility in Johannesburg, with its annual intake of about 3 000 bodies, records its cases by hand in a large ledger.
Often the writing is illegible and there’s no validation of what the person on duty writes.
Crucial information, such as the police officer’s station phone number and the crime administration system number — the unique number identifying the case — are habitually left blank.
Aside from these obvious possibilities for human error, there are more subtle opportunities for mistakes.
An official may say that the man who died is black, of medium build, between the ages of 30 and 35. But there is no agreed definition of what medium build is, what a 30-year-old looks like and even the definition of black.
“It’s your perception. It’s not objective; it’s subjective,” says Candice Hansmeyer, a special forensic pathologist at the Hillbrow facility.
On the other side is the family searching for a missing person — families who are also prone to human error.
“We have got family members who last saw their loved one years ago and now they have got to try remember, ‘he’s about so tall’, ‘this is what he looks like, she looks like’,” Hansmeyer says. “Hairstyles have changed, skin colours change depending on nutrition, sun exposure.”
That said, a more scientific approach would improve identification, as would a computerised system.
It might also provide an idea of the scale of the problem. If you want to know how many unidentified bodies moved through the Hillbrow facility’s yellow walls, you have to check manually.
“They must get all the dockets, they must compare all the dates. It’s tedious, it’s laborious,” says Mothobi Mokheti, who is in charge of information communication technology for the forensic pathology service.
This team of one is developing and piloting a mortuary management system for the South Gauteng forensic pathology service, which includes eight facilities.
The pilot scheme involves working with forensic officers and managers in the Hillbrow laboratory to capture bodies’ data and develop the system to address forensic officials’ needs.
“The second phase is to put the missing persons section on the system,” he says.
Currently, mortuaries — even ones in the same administrative cluster — do not share easily accessible databases. The police have their own database, but that can only be used by members of the service.
“We absolutely need a database and we need to have someone who works on it with a whole lot of dedication,” says Steyn, who has worked in South African forensics for more than two decades.
“If we could put all the data together for all the morgues, and all the case studies we do [at universities], and at least have that available and try and match the missing persons against that list, I think it would be a great contribution. Just by doing a few basic things right, we’ll be able to identify quite a few people … [But] all of these case reports that we write, they are of no use unless there is someone to follow it up.”
For the very difficult cases, such as decomposed veld bodies, academics and officials are pinning their hopes on advances in science.
In the past few decades, there have been remarkable improvements in identification standards, software and tools, and they hope this will continue.
“I hope that, in 10 years’ time, how we are looking at ancestry will look like old technology,” L’Abbé says. “I hope the next generation of researchers will take it so much further than we are able to do, and that in time we will improve identification.
“Until then, I will store [the bones of my unclaimed and unidentified cases] in the cupboard.
“Until someone comes for them.”
This is the second story in a three-part series, made possible by a grant from the Taco Kuiper Investigative Journalism Fund, run by Wits Journalism. It first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on January 20, 2017.
Forty unclaimed bodies are to be buried in Doornkop cemetery in Soweto on this particular Tuesday morning.
An undertaker confers with an official as they cross names and numbers off a list. Two men lean against bright yellow earthmovers, waiting for their cue in this burial scene.
People going to work walk through the gaping holes in the cemetery’s cement fencing and across the green grass. In the distance mourners stand around a child’s grave.
A family, en route to their mother’s grave, stops to ask whether their friend’s sister is being buried among the unclaimed.
The sister went into Jabulani Hospital a few months ago, they say, but when their friend went to see her, their friend was told she was not there. They are still looking for her but they think she is dead.
The sister is not among the seven adults and 30 babies being buried in Doornkop this time.
Small chipboard coffins for the babies, slightly larger than shoe boxes, are passed down to a man standing in an adult-sized grave.
He stands on the first layer of coffins so that he can better reach the next one.
They are not faring well in the warming sun and putrescent fluid has begun to seep through the coffins.
Not all the lids of the adults’ coffins are closed.
Some of the bodies are contorted. One coffin has the rather gruesome appearance of its inhabitant trying to escape. They froze in strange positions in the fridges, the undertaker says.
These bodies are identified but unclaimed.
Authorities know who the people are but no family has collected the bodies for burial.
Azwidowi Nevondo, a forensic officer at Hillbrow’s medico-legal laboratory, often has to help families who come to the facility looking for a loved one.
She clenches her fists when she talks: “People of South Africa, please, wherever you go, let one of the family know where you are. Don’t just disappear … It’s not only people from outside the country who are not identified, it’s also South Africans.”
When she asks when they last saw their loved one, it can be three months, five months, a year. “And you only come now looking for a missing person?”
It is a common story, heard from multiple people in this sprawling system. Sometimes families only realise that someone is missing when the maintenance payments stop or after months of no contact.
Nevondo shakes her head. “They cannot just sit and relax and think maybe you’re still alive somewhere, whereas maybe you’ve been dead a long time and the government had to bury you as a pauper.”
Shivani Reddy had thought her son was still alive.
Yes, she hadn’t heard from him in a while but that was his way. She had begun to worry when, after a few months, no one in the family knew where he was.
His cellphone went straight to voicemail.
Her son, Marcel Govender, had fallen through the cracks in the system. On December 5 2012, a cleaner had found his body in a hotel room in Kuilsriver in the Western Cape.
The police had written it off as an accidental drug overdose and, although they knew who he was, he was buried as a pauper. They destroyed his property — passport, ID document, clothes — after five months.
More than two years later, on February 16 2015, Reddy discovered that her son had died. Following the prolonged and worrying silence, she set up her own investigation, and asked the department of home affairs to look up his ID number.
It listed him as deceased.
Interviewed in November last year, Reddy said: “My question is: Why?”
“I’m not talking about foreign nationals, I’m talking about South Africans. We all have IDs ... my child was registered. They had his passport, they had his ID.
“It would have been a different case if he hadn’t had an ID, and even if he was fingerprinted and they didn’t know who this person is, then I could understand.
“But they just found the body, sent it to the mortuary and closed the case unofficially.”
This does not sound like a singular occurrence.
In September last year, Major General Charles Johnson, acting divisional commissioner for the detective service, sent out a directive about the “numerous” complaints about unidentified bodies not being investigated.
He sent out the steps that every investigating officer has to follow before they declare someone unidentified or unclaimed.
But that is no comfort to Reddy.
It would cost her R13 500 to have Marcel exhumed, something their religion, Hinduism, demands.
“We believe the spirit is still roaming around,” she said.
“I want justice for my child. I want a proper burial. I want his body exhumed.”
This is unlikely to happen.
On December 28 last year, Reddy suffered cardiac arrest and died. Her family says they do not have immediate plans to exhume Marcel.
All officials in Gauteng say that, if a family comes forward after a pauper’s burial, they will be able to find the body of their loved one.
Every body has a lot number, the official line goes, and this information is easily accessible. No one in the forensic system or police service seems to doubt that a body can be exhumed at will.
But simply watching one of the regular mass burials suggests that this is not universally true.
In Ekurhuleni’s Elandsfontein cemetery, it is: small metal plaques testify to the people buried in that grave, a white number on a black background. They dot the green field like flowers.
But in the potter’s field at Doornkop cemetery, the only indication of graves are the depressions in the ground, where the soil has settled after the rains.
There are no markers identifying each of the dozens of craters that pock the ground.
When asked who is responsible for erecting markers, the undertaker says the Johannesburg City Parks official, but the official points to the undertaker.
“Grave number one starts there,” says Jafta Thusi, the cemetery official who oversees the burial.
He points to a depression just in front of a row of pine trees that separates the new potter’s field from the rest of the cemetery. It has been accepting unidentified and unclaimed bodies since July 2016.
“This is a new place, so no one has come to exhume bodies,” he says. “Maybe next year.”
But exhuming a body is not a simple process — the family first has to find the location of the body, prove to a magistrate that they are related to the person and pay for the exhumation.
And authorities do not release bodies to families lightly.
Professor Jeanine Vellema, chief specialist for South Gauteng’s medico-legal laboratories, grimaces and shakes her head when the subject comes up.
“You should hear the stories that people come up with to get their hands on bodies.”
She relates the story of someone trying to claim the body of a burn victim, their body charred beyond recognition. She raises her forearms, mimicking a burned corpse: “‘My cousin always used to raise his arms like that,’ they say.” But that’s called the “pugilist stance”, which commonly happens as the muscles in the arms stiffen and shorten in response to extreme heat.
Sometimes criminals recycle bodies through mortuaries, giving unidentified bodies names against which they have taken out life insurance policies.
Using bodies for life insurance fraud is a lucrative endeavour.
Garth de Klerk, chief executive officer of the South African Insurance Crime Bureau, says this is “rife” in the industry.
“Unfortunately, we are not in a position to quote statistics and for obvious reasons we do not give out the details around the modus operandi that are used in these frauds,” he says.
Burying bodies is also big business but no one is able to quantify just how big.
It had been difficult to find a pauper’s burial to attend. Employees at the Hillbrow medico-legal laboratory have no advanced warning of when an undertaker will arrive to collect the unidentified and unclaimed bodies that fill their fridges. Burying the unclaimed and unidentified is a municipal function and thus out of their control.
The City of Joburg’s tender for the service has been out for months. No one is able to say who held it before and ultimately officials stopped responding to inquiries. It appears that burial contracts are currently awarded on a monthly basis.
It costs the municipality R1 500 to bury an unidentified or unclaimed body and R3 000 for a pauper.
But these costs are not included as a line item in any budget.
The Gauteng provincial government pointed to the provincial department of health, which did not respond to questions. The City of Johannesburg, in its 2012/2013 and 2013/2014 annual reports, lists the number of pauper and indigent burials it performed: both saw exactly 628 people (201 paupers and 427 indigent people) buried, suspiciously similar numbers.
A back-of-envelope calculation puts this cost at between R1-million and R2-million, although it could be more.
Tshwane’s annual reports do not have details of the number of indigent and pauper burials. Ekhuruleni in November put out a tender call for this service but, again, there is no information about who previously held the contract.
Back at Doornkop, this is the first time that undertaker Today’s Hope, based in Braamfontein, has buried unclaimed bodies. The bodies of the seven adults and 30 babies arrive in a white minibus, which trundles over the unpaved road.
Mthupi Mahamad, one of the company’s directors, is the only person in full protective gear. One woman wears a nose-and-mouth mask. Everyone is wearing gloves.
With rope and some difficulty, they lower the large coffins into the ground. The pits are 1.8m deep, the standard depth for burying a body, although perhaps not three bodies.
Today’s 37 burials take about 90 minutes — two graves filled with three adults each, one with 20 babies, and one with an adult and 10 babies.
The earthmover covers the open holes with mounds of waiting soil. The cast of people — relieved undertaker staff, City Parks officials, gawkers — disband and silence falls.
Sixteen empty pits sit in the shadow of the pine trees waiting for the next load of unclaimed or unidentified bodies.
This is the final story in a three-part series, made possible by a grant from the Taco Kuiper Investigative Journalism Fund, run by Wits Journalism. It first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on January 27, 2017.