January 3 2020
In 2008, Stanley Phiri*, like many skilled but jobless Zimbabweans, figured his idle hands would be put to better use in the informal economy of the City of Gold. For many of his peers in his hometown of Plumtree, opportunity was scarce and there were plenty of mouths to feed.
Phiri left for South Africa with his passport, a small amount of cash and the hope that he could find honest work. For two years his family received intermittent correspondence and money from him. In 2010, at the height of football fever, the updates came to an abrupt stop. He has not been heard from since.
The assumption, according to his elderly mother, is that he is dead. He would never abandon his family, she insists. He must be dead.
She tried to track him down. She moved to Yeoville, Johannesburg, earlier this year and lived with a family member there, but every lead she found went cold. The money she had finally raised to support her during the search is fast running out. Her cataracted eyes track slowly and she complains of all manner of aches. When the Mail & Guardian visited her in Yeoville, she was despondent. She can’t see well anymore but she will see her son again — in whatever state he is in, she says. “Angisaboni kuhle, kodwa bengimnanzelela … Ngifisa ukumbona ngingakafi.” She is back in Zimbabwe now.
Phiri’s story, unfortunately, is not uncommon. Johannesburg is a place to find one’s fortune and, sometimes, an unfortunate and mysterious end. Phiri is among many migrants who are presumed dead and yet there is no trace of him, physical or otherwise. Migrants fall through the cracks easily. Anonymity in life continues in death.
South Africa has a staggering number of unidentified deceased persons. In 2017, one of every 10 bodies that passed through Johannesburg’s mortuaries was unidentified; that is almost 1 000 dead bodies every year.
The identification of cadavers is a key issue in any forensic investigation, but is equally important for ethical, criminal and civil reasons. Loved ones have a right to bury their dead and without identification there are a number of civil procedures that cannot take place.
To conclude a postmortem examination, the body must be positively identified so that a death certificate can be issued. Without a death certificate, funeral arrangements cannot be made. Other civil matters, such as the collection of life insurance benefits and matters of inheritance, cannot be processed without a death certificate.
However, identifying an unknown deceased person is often difficult. In the absence of medical and dental records — especially in disadvantaged, undocumented or rural communities — it can be a Herculean task.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Last year, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) launched the Missing and Deceased Migrants Pilot Project. The organisation is working with South African and Zimbabwean authorities to complement existing systems, tools and resources that are used to identify deceased migrants. So far, the pilot project has had startling success.
Stephen Fonseca is the ICRC’s regional forensic manager for Africa. The man is a livewire, brimming with enthusiasm about the importance of giving dignity and personhood to some of the most vulnerable members of society. It is a case he has had to make repeatedly: not everyone understands why this is important.
“Returning the skeletal remains of a loved one to their family, even decades later, is like it happened yesterday,” Fonseca said. Only then can families begin to move on, he explains. This is true emotionally, but also practically: without a valid death certificate, spouses can find it difficult to remarry, and relatives may be prevented from registering for certain benefits. Villagers who have pooled their resources to send their most promising daughters and sons to the big cities need to know when their investment has not worked out.
Typically, in Johannesburg, families are given about a week to claim an unidentified body. Authorities will also run fingerprints through the system, which sometimes provides a match — but only if the body is that of a South African national or a documented migrant whose details are registered.
There are other ways to identify a body, however. This is where the ICRC comes in. Fonseca and his team have trained 10 people in the Johannesburg mortuary to collect and record any and all data that may one day — perhaps months, years or even decades in the future — lead to a positive identification. This includes a DNA sample; information about the clothes that the person was wearing; freckle patterns and dental records; any broken bones or historic fractures; and any scars or tattoos.
“It is a wonderful gift that people culturally scar themselves, forensically speaking,” says Fonseca, because that means bodies can be traced to specific communities. He hopes to put together a continental scarification database to make this process easier.
Technicians are also trained to take forensic photographs.
Building a comprehensive database on unidentified bodies is not enough, however. The other part of this programme is to go into migrant communities to build an equally detailed database of missing persons. When those databases are compared, there should be matches.
To do this, the ICRC implemented a pilot programme in Zimbabwe, choosing two villages in Matabeleland known to have high rates of migration to South Africa. They had to tread carefully: “Is this an undercover police sting?” one resident asked them. But following some patient negotiation, the ICRC was able to speak to 61 families, each of whom were missing a relative.
“People said that if it has been 10 or 20 years, families won’t remember the important information. But they did. They gave fantastic information,” said Fonseca.
Unita Ndou, a Harare-based field officer for the ICRC, is one of the people responsible for gathering that information. She would sit with the families that volunteered to participate, sometimes for hours, to gather as many details as possible about the missing person. Then she would run those details past diaspora community organisations, hoping to find them still alive. If that failed, she would check the databases of unidentified corpses.
She says that being a woman helps her to gain the trust of families. “As a mother, I feel I can connect with women when I am collecting antemortem data, some of which is culturally and personally sensitive for women to share. And this trust that I am given by families contributes to the success of the project.”
It is emotional and sometimes traumatic work. “I remember one old woman who cried because of her missing grandson, who had migrated,” Ndou told the M&G. “I remember I could not sleep that night and I cried a lot in my hotel room. I realised the despair my own mother would go through if I were to go missing because I am her youngest daughter and we connect well. Unfortunately, we have not been able to trace her missing grandson yet.”
But even given the limited scope of the pilot project, many missing persons have been identified. Using the information collected from their families, the ICRC was able to identify 14 of the 61 missing persons. Thirteen of them were alive, while one was deceased. “We didn’t expect any successes or matches,” said a beaming Fonseca.
He did sound one note of caution, however, which is that families should be reunited only if all parties consent. Sometimes there is a reason why people go missing — perhaps to escape an abusive relationship.
More successes still have come from the data collection project in the Johannesburg mortuary. Of the 265 bodies that have undergone the secondary examination recommended by the ICRC, 65 of them have been identified.
It is a compelling illustration of the power of data collection — and this is before comparing the database of unidentified bodies against a comprehensive collection of missing persons data.
*Name has been changed
The International Committee of the Red Cross is not the only organisation working on restoring personhood and dignity to unidentified bodies. For Kathryn Smith, it was a feeling of something missing that caused her to return to a teenage interest in forensic art.
The girl who grew up on MacGyver in Durban would later become a successful artist. Despite a commercially viable career with a slew of accolades and recognition from her peers, she felt that she wasn’t quite using her full artistic potential. She was the first South African to complete a postgraduate degree programme in forensic art at the University of Dundee Scotland, graduating in 2013.
Serendipitously, Smith, who is based in the UK, was in South Africa conducting doctoral research with Forensic Pathology Services and the South African Police Service as a multidisciplinary team was being put together to aid in the identification of remains that were in the University of Cape Town’s skeletal collection.
Between 1925 and 1931, UCT — like many learning institutions at the time — unethically obtained the mortal remains of eight individuals. The remains were identified by the curator of human remains at the faculty of health sciences, Dr Victoria Gibbon, during an archival audit of the university’s skeletal collection in 2017. The university had come into the possession of the remains through a donation by a medical student from the Kruisrivier farm in Sutherland. It is believed that the remains had been dug up from a cemetery on the farm.
The university’s Sutherland Project, a programme two years in the making, was established to identify and rebury the remains of several Khoe and San individuals identified in the university’s collection. Permission from their community was sought and the bodies were then analysed and identified.
Smith , who is now a senior lecturer at Stellenbosch University, is pursuing a doctorate in Forensic Art through Face Lab, an interdisciplinary research group at Liverpool John Moores University focusing on craniofacial analysis and depiction and representation, led by Professor Caroline Wilkinson.
Easily the most subjective — and controversial — technique in the field of forensic anthropology, forensic facial reconstruction (or forensic facial approximation) is the process of recreating the face of an unidentified individual from their skeletal remains through the merging of artistry, anthropology, osteology and anatomy.
Facial reconstruction uses the structure of the skull to interpret and rebuild facial features and soft tissues to recreate face shape. The process of adding the details that makes a face relatable — hair, wrinkles, marks and some details of the ear — is a matter of educated interpretation, guided by any additional case information, as these details cannot be determined from the skull alone.
Despite some controversy, facial reconstruction has proved successful enough that research and methodological developments continue to be advanced. The technology is advancing too. Everything is digital, so technicians do not have to work directly on a skull but only on 3D models or replicas. This is done for ethical reasons, as well as to preserve evidence.
Face Lab uses a 3D-modelling programme with a touch-sensitive interface. This non-destructive process becomes especially important in a criminal investigation, for example. Remains are of evidentiary value but for loved ones, a descendent’s humanity and dignity is of utmost importance.
Face Lab’s technique mimics a manual sculpting process but on what is best described as virtual clay. Each layer is transparent, allowing the researcher to continually evaluate the underlying skeletal structure at any time during the process.
The identification of the deceased is central to the direction an investigation into their death will take. Find out who that is lying on a gurney and you may find out who or what killed them.
One of the most famous cases of facial reconstruction is that of the Wisconsin River Jane Doe, who would later be discovered to be a 25-year-old woman called Mwivano Mwambashi Kupaza.
In 1999, a couple out on a picnic stumbled on a black bag that had washed ashore, along the banks of the Wisconsin River. In it was a putrid dismembered torso, bloated and decomposing rapidly in the heat. Because of the state of the body, it was difficult to determine the body’s age, gender and cause of death on first inspection.
In the ensuing days, other bags containing body parts would surface. The last bag contained a head. The face and scalp had been cleaved. Like the rest of the remains, it bore the marks of skin that hadn’t sloughed off in the process of decomposition. It had been deliberately removed.
As an expert in the fields of archeology and forensic anthropology, Dr Leslie Eisenberg was brought in to help in the identification of the remains. Eisenberg, by her own account, may be one of the first anthropologists to reconstruct a face using hard and soft tissue on a 3D model to yield evidentiary information.
The work was not easy: without a face and no distinguishing marks, Eisenberg had to create an exact 3D replica of the skull on which to work. Using clay to painstakingly sculpt a face, Eisenberg brought Jane Doe’s face to life.
She was given different hairstyles, earrings, glasses and a head wrap to possibly jog a memory. Four months later, Eisenberg’s reconstruction bore fruit.
A picture of Jane Doe had been posted at a branch of a shop whose plastic bags some of her remains had been found in. Shari Goss recognised the face as that of Mwivano Kupaza, her former husband’s cousin.
Goss’s marriage to her former husband, Peter Kupaza, fell apart when she found out that Peter had raped his cousin and was likely the father of the baby he had coerced her into terminating.
Goss left, but Mwivano continued living with him — until her sudden disappearance. Without this identification, Peter would most likely have got away with his crimes.
The right to dignity
The South African Constitution is relatively unique in its emphasis on the right to dignity. This right is not always easy to define, but the ongoing efforts to identify anonymous bodies is a clear example of it in action: in giving names, faces and backstories to the thousands of unidentified corpses that pass through South Africa’s morgues — both today and historically — those bodies are given the dignity of a name and a history. And by connecting those deceased people with the families who love and miss them, those families too are afforded the kind of emotional, ethical and legal closure without which it is impossible to move on.