Thousands buried anonymously each year

Despite a national average of 56 murders and 40 deaths in road accidents daily, each forensic pathologist can do just four autopsies a day and only has to determine causes of death. Regular strikes and the sheer volume of arrivals mean they usually face backlogs and fridges that are full to capacity.

South African citizens are identified by their fingerprints, and people with criminal records are found in the police database. While forensic scientists work closely with the police, both services lack human resources, said Jeanine Vellema, the head of the forensic medicine and pathology department at the University of the Witwatersrand who’s in charge of eight of Gauteng’s 11 mortuaries.

“We’re not a well-funded organisation so we can only do identification to a certain point,” she said.

Much of that has to do with the fact that forensic pathology was moved from the police to the Department of Health in 2006 and has to compete for funding with other health services.

“We’re always going to come last because our patients are dead,” Vellema said.

Numbers typically peak in the Johannesburg mortuary, a two-story brick building near Hillbrow. It’s one of two provincial facilities with a full-body x-ray scanner, which means that forensic staff often have to bring bodies from other mortuaries and line up at the back entrance to wait for a turn.

It’s a grim place with traces of blood on wet cement floors, garbage bins overflowing with used protective gear and a striking odor that fills the air.

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