Corpses pile up at state mortuaries

Forensic Pathology Service van. Photo: SANDILE NDLOVU
Forensic Pathology Service van. Photo: SANDILE NDLOVU

Forensic workers with only matric and no medical qualifications are performing autopsies, which results in unfit evidence being rejected by courts.

This was the allegation made by employees of government mortuaries in Gauteng. Thirteen mortuaries have been on strike since last week as forensic workers refused to conduct postmortems, demanding similar benefits to pathologists.

They also wanted a danger allowance and reinstatement of debriefing and counselling sessions. At the Diepkloof Forensic Pathology Service in Soweto yesterday, workers said they had been working under bad conditions since 2006 when Forensic Pathology Services was taken over by the health department from the SA Police Service.

Most of the employees are former police officers who only have matric and basic computer qualifications. Their official duty is to collect bodies, identify the deceased, prepare the body for dissection and gather specimens collected by the pathologist. However, they said this had not been the case.

"We are expected to perform the dissection ourselves. We get exposed to all kinds of diseases such as meningitis. We use sharp objects which we are not qualified to use because we are not qualified pathologists," said one employee.

Another employee said: "In many cases, we don't get recognition because only a pathologist can give evidence of a postmortem procedure in court.

"Because of this, many pathologists would rather hide the fact that they didn't do the autopsy themselves. If the court finds out that the procedural chain was broken, the autopsy evidence is dismissed."

Sowetan was told that the Diepkloof facility has four pathologists who earn between R11000 and R15000 for dissecting. They are also said to accumulate overtime pay of over R10000 and a salary of up to R40000 - while a senior forensic worker earns R12000.

The strike has inconvenienced grieving families who have not been able to bury their loved ones whose bodies were waiting to be dissected.

No postmortems have been conducted at the Diepkloof facility since last Thursday when workers downed tools resulting in over 40 bodies piling up in fridges. Some bodies were starting to decompose and the smell overwhelming.

The unit only handles corpses of people who died of unnatural causes and the postmortem results are used as evidence in court. The workers said negotiations with the Gauteng health department on Monday were deadlocked.

However, health department spokesman Khutso Rabothata said the danger allowance would be implemented and counselling would also be reinstated, as well as provision of sufficient equipment. He called on the employees to resume work.