On the graveyard shift: this is what it's like to collect South Africa's dead

30 March 2016 - 11:26 By Graeme Hosken
Selby Cindi, from Johannesburg Forensic Pathology Services, and a Johannesburg metro police officer lift the body of an accident victim from a street in the Johannesburg CBD.
Selby Cindi, from Johannesburg Forensic Pathology Services, and a Johannesburg metro police officer lift the body of an accident victim from a street in the Johannesburg CBD.
Image: Alon Skuy

Five nights, four bodies. Reporter Graeme Hosken and photographer Alon Skuy spent the graveyard shift with the men and women who collect South Africa’s dead.

Body #38 lies on a steel gurney in Carletonville Forensic Pathology Services's "new" fridge.

The government-issued cream-coloured body bag refuses to seal, her arm hangs half out.

She's just arrived. Half-naked, 14 stab wounds to the chest.


"Gogo" was found sprawled on the dusty ground in the backyard of her Bekkersdal home. Her bloodied white blouse ripped open, her skirt bunched around her waist.

She had been there for days. She lived alone.

"It's tough," says Sello Mabote, as he scrawls her "new ID" number on a beige toe tag.

"It's especially tough when it comes to the families."

For his colleague Mpho Marahoni it's murders, the death of children, and surviving families that get to him.

"They are lost," he says as he writes down the body's details, "searching for answers, pleading for help."

South Africa's morgue officers have to be policemen, church ministers and counsellors to the families of the dead.

Body #38 is the 38th of 107 bodies collected by Carletonville's mortuary officers so far this year.


"She is safe now. She's asleep," whispered Mabote as he crouched next to "Gogo's" five-year-old grandson, when he picked up her body earlier.


Death is the ultimate equaliser, says Lindiwe Sebogodi, a mortuary officer based in Hillbrow.

"Reeva [Steenkamp], Brenda [Fassie], Chris Hani and Brett Kebble. I have collected them all. The rich, the famous, the poor and not so famous. Maybe even you one day.

"Once you are here you are all the same to us. That's what death does," says Sebogodi.

In the 2014-2015 financial year, South Africa's mortuary officials collected more than 18000 murder victims.

This doesn't include the thousands of road-accident victims, suicides, accidental deaths, dumped foetuses or those who die from unknown causes.

Hillbrow's mortuary is South Africa's busiest. Staff can collect as many as 14 bodies on a day. In 2015 they collected more than 3000 bodies.

Bodies, like #38, are physically written into the thousands of pale-blue government-issued mortuary identification and personal belongings books.


Some entries are neatly printed block letters running across dozens of columns, others scrawled, and barely legible.

Their contents: gender, cause of death, clothing, possessions, but seldom name or age.

Body #297: JHB Central, male, stabbing, black suit;

Body #298: Hillbrow, female, shot, floral skirt, white shirt;

Body #299: Hillbrow, male, shot, black pants, brown T-shirt.


"You can't switch off. You constantly think of the dead, especially the unknown, those who have no names... You wonder who they were and where their families are," says Ina Botes, manager of the mortuary in Hillbrow.

"I often look into their eyes and wonder what the last three minutes of their lives must have been like. Their fear, pain and prayers for help as they realised that they were dying. I've always wondered this. Ever since my first day here," says Botes.

Sometimes those eyes belong to friends and family.

"It's one of the hardest things to deal with... finding a friend mangled in a car wreck. That, and driving the body of your child or colleague to the morgue," says Mabote.


For most, the images which haunt them are those of the children they collect.

For Botes it's a specific collection, from the 1990s.

"It was a young couple. The husband and wife got involved in a fight. The father got angry, picked up his baby and swung it against the wall.

"You want to exact revenge. You want to be judge, juror and executioner."

For Mabote it's tonight's call: a one-month-old baby girl. The cause of death, for now, unknown.


"She's tiny. Her mother says she just stopped breathing. They tried to help her, but she's gone. Her little sister doesn't know what's happened, she thinks she's still coming back.

"When I carry her out, I am going to carry her like I am carrying the president. I will be gentle with her, like she is my own child."


In the end, for mortuary officers, death is but a number.

"Toe tags, body numbers, collection numbers, street numbers, phone numbers.

"What terrifies me the most? That I too will eventually become a statistic - just another damn number," says Hillbrow mortuary officer Selby Cindi.

"In the end it's all just a number game. For now we will just wait. Death will soon come visit and the numbers will be played again."