Tales from the Cape Flats morgue
A visit to the Salt River Forensic Pathology Service reveals the reality of SA's violent deaths and the dedication of those who work there.
The body of an African man in his twenties lies on a steel gurney, a 2.5cm wound above his heart. Based on the way the wound opened, Dr Sairita Maistry tells me, it was inflicted by a knife and not a blunt object.
In an initial inspection, the man’s eyelids are pulled back with tweezers and released with a snap. His scrotum is checked, as are his fingernails, followed by every inch of his skin to uncover clues that might help Maistry better understand how this man died.
Maistry, a forensic pathologist at Salt River Forensic Pathology Service in Cape Town, finds no signs that the victim tried to fight off the attackers. She deduces that the attacker was taller than the victim, as the knife came down at a sharp angle in a precise, single blow.
As the autopsy begins, a scalpel is dragged down the centre of the man’s chest and the skin glides open to reveal deep yellow cartilage on the rib cage. Lines are cut around the neck in a Y-shape, flesh separating from the body. What resembles a pair of garden shears with a bent nib is taken out. The ribs are cracked and the breastplate is lifted up. The cavity, full of blood, is drained with a ladle, and the organs are removed.
Finally, the man’s collapsed lung is examined and it is determined that he died a slow, painful death. He would have collapsed, his body slowly weakening as the blood built up in his lung and restricted his breathing.
This is a common case. Violence, often under the influence of alcohol, is a primary cause of death. The details of this man’s death will be documented, the toxicology samples will be sent off and when they return, they will be added to the file.
Maistry will have to remember all the details when she is called to court: everything from how the man was unsuspecting of his fate to how the single jab penetrated him with the force of a larger person. How he was standing and fell to the ground, never showing any signs of retaliation. She will do this for the family left behind, in the hopes that her effort will provide the closure needed for them to continue with their lives.
Forensic officers prepare to load a body on to a gurney in Mitchells Plain.
Maistry and the others who work with her only deal with unnatural causes of death. Under a dual appointment for government and the University of Cape Town (UCT), they conduct postmortems and offer training to medical, law and forensic science students.
Their job reveals the morbid reality of South Africa’s violent society: gunshots, stabbings and road accidents are by far the most common causes of death in the approximately 3 500 bodies they examine each year.
The foyer of the forensic pathology service, on the border of Salt River and Observatory, has been revamped over recent years. The elongated room once had two entrances – one on the right for white people and one on the left for non-whites. There was an information desk in the middle where families of the deceased would be directed to their designated viewing rooms.
The foyer has since had its central information desk bashed out and the original doors have been blocked up with glass bricks. Inside each entrance now stands a concrete water feature and matching pot plants. White stones fill the floor like an industrial Zen garden. There is a new door in the centre and a long counter behind which the forensic officers wait for calls to come in from crime scenes, do their paperwork and tend to bereaved families.
Inside, each pathologist sees up to three cadavers each day, with postmortems conducted between 8am and 11.30am, after which the families start coming in to view the bodies.
It is lunchtime on a Thursday and Dr Linda Liebenberg sits in her immaculate office at UCT’s forensic pathology department with perfect posture on a chair without a back.
With every case she investigates Liebenberg has to absorb every detail, record it and then attempt to understand how it fits in with other information. She wonders: is it a logical examination? Should she do more tests? And all this time, in the back of her head, she is practising the speech she will give in court that will supply the details of the death, leaving no room for the defence attorney to argue otherwise.
It is like watching a snuff movie every time. She relives a person’s death with each autopsy, understanding exactly what they went through up to their last breath, and she memorises three scripts of these films every day. There is a light shake in her arm as she relays this and her eyes are wet, but no tear falls.
The Salt River Forensic Pathology Service is one of the busiest morgues in the world, with about 3?500 admissions in this past year, mostly owing to stabbings, gunshot wounds and road accidents.
Liebenberg tells me about her thesis, which included research on firearm cases from 1999. By 2004 only 5.2% of all these cases had reached a verdict in court. It is witnessing a system that is failing her and every bereaved family that pains her.
In her hand Liebenberg holds the paperwork for a case that a mother phones about every few weeks. Her son was rehabilitated from a drug addiction, but suffered an unexpected death. Here, the living becomes the victim as this mother wonders: Did her son return to addiction? Why did he have to die?
The toxicology labs, Liebenberg tells me, have a backlog of six to seven years. A family has to wait this long to find out how their child died. During this time it is Liebenberg and the other forensic pathologists who have to deal with the family’s phone calls, families begging for answers so they can move on with their lives.
It was in December 2003 that Liebenberg first found tik in a body. She had never heard of it before. Today, approximately 50% of the toxicology reports she submits come back testing positive for crystal methamphetamine.
The lolli (glass pipe) is usually still in the victim’s pocket at the time of death. This is one of the primary reasons she has a job today. Een man se dood is ‘n ander se brood; one man’s death is another man’s bread, she tells me.
It is the winter months, between June and August, that are the busiest. That is when people are cold and unemployed. They cluster together, drink together and fight together. It is a contamination of time. If one’s days consistently offer nothing to do, nothing constructive, nothing to eat, one fills them with what is on offer. In Cape Town, gangs are on offer.
She relays a story of a well-off, religious family whose son became addicted to tik and robbed his family of their belongings to support his habit. The father and elder son grew so angry that they beat and strangled him. They were imprisoned. The mother was left to deal with the death of her son and the loss of her husband and second son – alone.
“This is a very sad discussion,” she tells me. I decide to ask about her success stories to lighten the mood. The one that comes to mind never saw its day in court.
In this particular case in Gugulethu, a woman in her twenties was found behind a concrete wall just out of sight from the road. She had no pants on and lay in the sand, legs open, exposed. At first glance it looked like a standard case.
Liebenberg took photographs and examined the area before going back to the morgue to conduct the postmortem. But there was something strange. There had been a condom at the scene of the crime and as she inspected the body closer, she could not see the typical strangulation marks common on rape-homicide victims. Nor were there any other signs of inflicted violence.
On opening up the body, Liebenberg noticed that the lungs and oesophagus were swollen, restricting her breathing, a symptom relating to anaphylaxis. She did tests and then contacted the police officer in charge to inquire what had happened to the suspect. The policeman told her the accused had confessed to “placing his penis inside of her” and was being held for rape.
But from Liebenberg’s investigation, it was clear something else had happened. The couple had indeed had sex, but it was consensual. At some point the woman started suffocating and, realising something was wrong, the man fled the scene. The woman fell to the ground and died. She was allergic to the latex of the condom.
The officer was adamant that he had arrested the correct man and had a confession. It took two weeks of arguing first with the officer, then with his superior, and then with the public prosecutor before the man was released from prison. Liebenberg had saved an innocent man’s future.
Forensic pathologists conduct up to three postmortems a day.
I look around her tidy room and recall the precise way in which she conducts her autopsies and fills out her reports. I wonder if she is this meticulous in all aspects of her life?
“Only when I want to be,” she replies. “Sometimes I am too tired for [such] things, these days.”
Time to see how the bodies arrive in this place. It is Friday at 6.53pm and the first murder of the night is reported. I head out to Nyanga with forensic officers Lubabalo Booi and Andrew Davids.
A large thoroughfare is blocked off with police tape when we arrive shortly after dark. The attack had taken place at 5.20pm – rush hour – and the victim is lying in the gutter on the right-hand side of the road, beneath a row of shacks. There is a group of onlookers nearby. None shows emotion, possibly from shock; they are his family. Two police officers are mulling around, and pedestrians walk through the scene and glance down at the body without breaking their stride.
The procedure is quite quick – some forms are filled out, we radio in to the Salt River Forensic Pathology Service when we arrive on the scene and again when we leave. Photographs are taken of the body, as are GPS co-ordinates of where it was found, and then a gurney, which can carry up to four bodies, is wheeled out of the back of the van. A white plastic bag is opened on top of the gurney and Booi and Davids pick up the body and place it in the bag. The bag is closed, strapped to the gurney and wheeled back into the van.
A bystander picks up some sand to place on the bloodstain in the gutter but a police officer stops him. When I climb into my car I see the sand being blotted over the evidence. The public, it seems, wants to forget this visual as soon as possible.
Back at the morgue the body is weighed and measured. At 85kg and 1.8m tall he was a large man. It took nine gunshots to kill him in what is assumed to be a robbery. There is nothing in his pockets and his shoes are missing, but his family might have removed these at the scene.
At 8.30pm the next call comes in. We drive out to Mitchells Plain to collect a body from the community clinic. The police officer in charge explains the incident, reciting the names of the people involved as if he has known them for years. Jordan (I have used pseudonyms here) was relaxing at home with his friend Darryl. He went to answer a knock at his front door. Mario, a gang member, was on the other side and fired two shots into him as he opened the door. Darryl tried to pull Jordan out of the doorway but then retreated to the bathroom for his own safety. Mario and a few other gang members fled to the Khayelitsha cemetery. It is not known if Jordan was in a gang, but Mario is a member of the Americans. Jordan went to answer the door and died. That is the uncertainty of life.
We find the two small puncture wounds in his chest. There is a crushed tik lolli in his pocket. It is assumed he owed the gang members money for drugs. As we move the body into the refrigeration room we collect another body that had been left in the viewing room – a student who had committed suicide. Both are placed in a designated slot in the refrigeration room. One line of bodies across the room is almost complete.
Another body arrives from Groote Schuur Hospital – a post-operation death where there is uncertainty about what caused his death. At 1.45am an ambulance arrives with a 76-year-old man who had a heart attack while driving. He went through a traffic light and T-boned another car. His passenger is in a critical state in hospital now.
At 2.40am we are called out to Mitchells Plain again. At the same time another dispatch is sent out to Milnerton for a stabbing. We arrive on the scene, which is nestled among residential development homes. The southeaster of summer has picked up for the first time and is pushing the winter torrents into our faces. It’s even colder than usual. Under an umbrella in the middle of the road, three people are standing together.
The man walks up to me and announces that he is the father. I look across to a blue blanket lying in the sand. On the wall behind it is a hand-painted advertisement for Jive, and a sign reading Daily Tuck Shop. Death, it seems, can happen anywhere and at any time.
I offer my condolences to the father. I know what’s next for this man and his family, but I don’t have the heart to share it with him.
This is what I know from my time here: The body of the man’s son will arrive at the morgue for an autopsy, where the moments leading up to his death will be relived through his wounds and documented with exact detail into a file. The family will come to the morgue in the late morning to identify the body. The staff there will try and offer what little comfort they can. They will confirm that the corpse is, in fact, their son, a death certificate will be issued and preparation for a court case determined. The court case will follow a series of delays. The family will be lucky if the forensic report is ever opened.
But this is the one document that offers the answers that Maistry and her ilk want families to have. Sadly, the justice that Liebenberg works so tirelessly to achieve will probably never come.