Gauteng Health has launched an investigation following the breakdown on the Soweto M1 highway of a trailer, run by a private undertaker, heaped with 42 bodies being taken for pauper burials.
The EFF Johannesburg region has expressed its shock and disgust towards the incompetent Gauteng Department of Health MEC after a trailer carrying 42 bodies from Charlotte Maxele Academic Hospital en route to the Olifantslei Cemetery in Soweto broke down on the M1 South highway.
The EFF said in a report on the Polity site that it equally puts the blame on the MEC Dr Gwen Ramokgopa and her department for contracting an incompetent service provider to transport coffins of 16 adults and 26 stillborn infants using a trailer covered with a plastic sail.
The EFF said that the incident happened in the afternoon in full view of motorist driving on the M1 south in Braamfontain when the trailer’s wheel came off while the vehicle was in motion.
The report says that upon the Johannesburg Metro Police Department’s arrival, they discovered that the driver of the trailer did not have any documentation that they are a registered mortuary nor any hospital documentation to move the bodies.
About a dozen forensic pathology service vehicles were on the scene to transport the bodies to the burial site, reports Eyewitness News. Head of forensic medical services in Gauteng Dr Medupi Modisane said: “We’ve contracted private undertakers to perform proper burials for us.”
The Gauteng Health Department said it’s launched an investigation into how a private undertaker was hired for this transfer.
The Sowetan reports that the 42 corpses were destined for mass graves and has established that one grave, in the paupers section of the Olifantsvlei cemetery near Eldorado Park, was ready to bury at least four adult corpses per grave.
The report quotes Sthembiso Nkosi, one of the grave diggers at the cemetery, as saying: “We bury up to 20 stillborn corpses in one grave because families do not come back to demand exhumations.” He added: “But we can bury up to four adults in one grave.”
Aaron Mabuza, the owner of Soweto Funeral Services which was tasked with burying the corpses, refused to speak, saying: “Aningiyekeni nina bantu bamaphepha. (Leave me alone, you media people).” But, the report says, he has earlier admitted that he was at fault for using an open trailer to transport bodies. Mabuza used a minibus and a rented trailer to transport the 42 coffins.
Corlett Letlojane, executive director at Human Rights Institute of South Africa, said mass graves were an unfortunate stark reminder of what used to happen during apartheid. “The fact that the bodies were unidentified or unclaimed does not reduce their humanity. They still deserved to be respected even when they’re dead,” she said.
The report says it has also been established that Mabuza scored a R46,000 deal with the provincial health department for the transportation and burial of the bodies. According to documents, the funeral parlour was awarded a contract to conduct 43 pauper burials, at R1,197 per adult corpse and R513 for a child under six years. The deal amounted to a total of R46,01154 which included R570 for the transportation of corpses and R1,679.22 for grave fees.
Thabo Banda, the chair of the Gauteng Funeral Practitioners Association, said that Mabuza was not their member, but lamented the price that the Gauteng Health Department paid for pauper burials as the main reason behind the “cutting of corners”. “The person (Mabuza) was trying to cut costs because the R1,197 the department pays is very little considering the costs associated with burials,” Banda said. “He was simply trying to stretch the rand,” he added.
According to the report, Gauteng Health MEC Gwen Ramokgopa apologised, saying she has instructed that the burial process be stalled for another seven days to give an opportunity to families who might still want to come and identify their loved ones.
“Even in instances where we cannot trace the family members of the deceased patients, the law still requires that we bury them in a dignified and respectful manner.
“I have also looked at regulations from the hospital on the transportation of bodies and I found that there are no clear specifications.”
Ramokgopa says anyone found to have neglected their responsibility in the case will be held accountable. She is quoted in the Sowetan as saying that a preliminary report on the incident pointed to some violation of the law‚ including the failure by the private undertaker to produce necessary documents which he was supposed to be in possession of and produce when requested by the police.
In addition, the hospital management had failed to ensure that the undertaker produced the required documents before leaving the facility‚ Ramokgopa said. “I have already instructed the hospital to take measures to rectify noncompliance with the policy in this regard‚ I have also looked at regulations from the hospital on the transportations of bodies and I found that there are no clear specifications. In the midst of this‚ I have instructed the acting HoD to ensure that the transversal specifications are done.
“In the next two weeks we will be issuing invitation for transversal contracts. I am determined to ensure that we thoroughly investigate this matter and take all corrective measures to ensure that this does not happen again.
Anyone who might be found to have neglected his/ her responsibility will be held accountable‚” Ramokgopa said.
Briefing members of the Gauteng Legislature‚ she described the incident as “very unpleasant and unacceptable”. “Even in instances where we cannot trace the family members of the deceased patients‚ the law still requires that we bury them in a dignified and respectful manner. As a norm we utilised numerous communication channels to try and trace the family of the deceased including placing their names on national newspapers.”