Thousands of unclaimed bodies in SA mortuaries

Issued by Madeleine Hicklin MP – DA Shadow Deputy Minister of Health
19 Sep 2023 in News

Please find attached a soundbite by Madeleine Hicklin MP.

The DA calls on the Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla, and Minister of Electricity, Kgosientso Ramakgopa, to urgently address the pending disaster Stage 6 load-shedding could have on the State mortuaries by providing them with emergency generators and diesel to keep the fridges cold; and for the Provincial Departments of Health to expedite the identification of bodies to free up space in their overcrowded mortuaries.

More than 4 000 bodies lay unclaimed in mortuaries across South Africa in September, some dating back to 2017. 1 500 corpses remaining unclaimed in the KwaZulu-Natal State mortuaries, while in Gauteng, the figure stands at over 1 000.

The Gauteng Department of Health (GDoH) claims to be encouraging families and relatives to identify and collect the remains of their loved ones. However, according to information the DA received, it appears an extortion racket is operating in and around Johannesburg where relatives are being forced to pay for the release of the bodies of their loved ones. Some of those bodies are the victims who tragically died in the horrific blaze that took place in Albert Street in Marshalltown. 77 adults and children lost their lives in the fire.

All the remains of the victims of the Marshalltown fire were taken to the Diepkloof mortuary where it is believed that family members were expected to pay a fee of R700 for the autopsy and release of the body – despite these services being conducted for free by the Forensic Pathology Services (FPS) attached to all State mortuaries.

In addition, families are being shoved from pillar to post as the anticipated use of biometric and DNA identification systems seems to have stalled. Only 30 bodies have been positively identified and 44 remain awaiting identification, according to the GDoH. 74 potential names were presented to the South African Police Service (SAPS) Victim Identification Centre Unit, but the issue of undocumented persons with no known relatives in Johannesburg is still said to be making the identification of the remains of other victims, extremely challenging.

The sheer number of bodies remaining unclaimed in State mortuaries poses a significant breach of the health regulations, and as we move closer to the Summer months, this phenomenon will pose significant health risks as Stage 6 load-shedding continues unabated. Very few of the mortuaries, countrywide, have generators, and this will see bodies decomposing rapidly, causing even further challenges to the overburdened state mortuaries.

It is common practice that, if a body is not claimed within seven days, the GDoH sends fingerprints SAPS Criminal Records Department and to the Department of Home Affairs in an attempt to identify the bodies. Thereafter, a pauper’s burial can be arranged. This seems not to be the case here.

The Ministers of Health and Electricity must address this crisis in the making. This horrific state of affairs is increasing the trauma and grief of family members trying to mourn their loved ones.