No Ubuntu for the dead…Mayhem in SA’s state mortuaries

Missing bodies, missing body parts, bodies piling up, bodies being handled by unqualified personnel, bribes to view bodies…These are just come of the ways in which the rights of deceased people and their families have been violated in South Africa’s State mortuaries.  BizNews speaks to Professor David Mc Cuoid-Mason, a lecturer in Medical Practice at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He has been fighting for the control of Forensic Mortuary Services to be removed from the Department of Health and placed under the control of an independent body to ensure that the rights of both the deceased and their relatives are respected. – Chris Steyn

Sign up for your early morning brew of the BizNews Insider to keep you up to speed with the content that matters. The newsletter will land in your inbox at 5:30am weekdays. Register here.


Watch here

Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:09 – Introductions
  • 00:26 – Professor David Mc Cuoid-Mason on the rights offered to a deceased person
  • 01:11 – On the recent disappearances of bodies and body parts
  • 08:51 – How does a body disappear from a mortuary
  • 14:49 – On families battling to get death certificates for their family members
  • 16:31 – Conclusions

Listen here


Highlights from the interview

Missing bodies, missing body parts, bodies piling up, bodies being handled by unqualified personnel, bribes to view bodies…

These are just some of the ways in which the rights of deceased people and their families have been violated in South Africa’s State mortuaries. 

BizNews speaks to Professor David Mc Cuoid-Mason, a lecturer in Medical Practice at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Read more: BN@10: Eskomite no more, Jan Oberholzer shines a light on the future of load-shedding

He has been fighting for the control of Forensic Mortuary Services to be removed from the Department of Health and placed under the control of an independent body to ensure that the rights of both the deceased and their relatives are respected.

“Now, there’s just no respect for the dead. There’s no Ubuntu for live people. There’s no Ubuntu for dead people. And normally we respect people. We always respect the dead: a long tradition in Africa and everywhere else; the dead people are deeply respected. And yet you’ve got mortuary morticians who are selling bodies for muti purposes or doing all sorts of things and not actually being held to account most of the time and that is what the problem is…”

Asked how a body can just disappear from a mortuary, Professor McCuoid-Mason answers: “You may well ask…a body, a baby, anything that can just disappear because it’s arranged. Well, you saw what happened in the (Thabo) Bester case. You know, things can be done if people want to do it.”

He also describes an incident where mortuary workers left a body to rot outdoors. “There’s one case, for instance, in Maritzburg where a waste picker died at the site looking after garbage. But the pathology, the guys from the mortuary, refused to go and collect the body, or even let the police go and collect the body of this deceased guy. The body lay rotting in the sun.”

Read more: Trillions of state capture loot can be recovered with civil freezing orders – If the state allowed it…

Professor Mc Quoid-Mason points out that South Africa, as a developing democracy, does not have the checks and balances that are enforced by mature democracies that still have their mortuary services under the Department of Health. 

“So, all of these things, all the promises that we had when we came into democracy, and I know about this because I was one of the people who helped fight for our democracy as well, but all of these promises have gradually been dissipated, and criminal elements have infiltrated things as well and people have become just part of the criminal conspiracy, if you like…Everybody is trying to get money, so we’ve got sort of rampant capitalism in a way..capitalism and criminalism.

“And the same with bodies. You want to go and see your relative who’s died somewhere. They say: ‘Well, we won’t let you come in. You can’t see the body until you pay us something’. So even asking for bribes for relatives to go and see, inspect bodies.”

Professor Mc Quoid-Mason adds that “by and large” there is also still the problem of unqualified people dealing with bodies which is “completely illegal” in terms of The National Law of Ethics and The Health Conditions.

Read more: Coalition conundrum: Why the DA should avoid a coalition with the ANC – Marius Roodt

“Unqualified technicians have been putting together bodies, and…we had one example of a woman saying she couldn’t even recognise her relative anymore because her face was sort of left still distorted…”

Meanwhile, there is a backlog of bodies not being processed and inquests not being done as a result.

Professor Mc Quoid-Mason points out that “the whole criminal justice system” is being held up.

“…you’ve got to have forensic pathologists giving evidence as to how people died. You’ve got semi-literate people sometimes writing reports, so the reports can’t really be used in a court of law because they are not proper reports.”

He adds: “…very often the person right at the top is not even a qualified doctor. So the result has been a complete sort of breakdown in the system – and it’s not only in KwaZulu-Natal, it is basically everywhere…”

Read also: