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African solutions needed to help identify SA’s unknown dead — Kathryn Smith
Author: Kathryn Smith
Published: 02/06/2023

​South Africa is grappling with a silent mass disaster of missing and unidentified people that requires collaborative interventions and solutions unique to our context, writes Dr Kathryn Smith* from the Department of Visual Arts in an opinion piece for the Mail & Guardian (1 June 2023).

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

​​The number of unidentified individuals admitted to South Africa's medico-legal laboratories may be as high as 10,000 per year. Professionals in the field put this number conservatively at around 7,000. Studies based on data from the country's busiest medico-legal facilities in Cape Town and Johannesburg confirm that between 9% and 10% of bodies remain unknown after the prescribed period to confirm identity.

To borrow a phrase from the USA's National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, this is 'a silent mass disaster over time'. And, unless we start collaborating across disciplines and thinking creatively about how to do forensic post-mortem identification in our unique and complex context, these numbers are not going to improve. Determining the circumstances of non-natural deaths and custodianship of these bodies in South Africa is the responsibility of Forensic Pathology Services. Identification is the responsibility of the South African Police Service, making collaboration between these two services essential, and capacity a major challenge.

Unless a fingerprint comparison returns a positive result, the process of identifying an unknown person is seldom straightforward. In a country where medical care is out of reach for most – meaning that dental records are not available – we simply cannot only rely on the methods accepted as scientific and primary for forensic identification, namely fingerprinting, dental or DNA. All these methods require comparison, and records may not be available, and DNA testing is expensive. Add to this that many of our cases are complex, meaning bodies may be visually unrecognisable in death due to decomposition or extreme traumatic injury. Such bodies require expert analysis beyond the standard autopsy. With one forensic pathologist for every million people in SA, there is understandably a massive backlog in forensic identification.

Formal statistics are only recorded for unclaimed bodies in South Africa. In the absence of a single database where information on missing and unidentified people in SA can be easily compared, the extent of this crisis cannot be accurately quantified. Furthermore, the Western Cape is the only province with digitised case records.

South African law permits unclaimed and unknown persons to be released for burial or cremation by the State after thirty days, which is seldom enough time to enable the relevant identification processes and specialised analyses to unfold. Many bodies are kept for far longer – two years or more – without being identified. This also creates a massive storage problem.

For every unknown deceased person, there is a missing person, even if they have not been formally reported as missing.  The unidentified dead thus represent a crisis for both social and criminal justice.

We must find better ways of capturing and consolidating information about missing and unidentified people, and we need African solutions for African problems. One solution could be to offer training to students pursuing careers in forensic science and thus increase capacity. But for this to happen, more universities will have to present these students with opportunities to study forensic facial imaging.

Currently, Stellenbosch University (SU) is the only higher education institution on the continent with expert capacity in forensic facial imaging for post-mortem identification, and the technology to conduct this work in line with international best-practice. 

Post-mortem photographs

As a visual artist with a keen interest in the forensic world and an awareness of the crisis of the unidentified dead in South Africa, I established VIZ.Lab at SU in 2021. This initiative promotes research in forensic visual identification, and experiments with digital design and visualisation technologies. It is the culmination of over 30 years of producing artistic and curatorial projects informed by forensic observation.

VIZ.Lab grew out of my interest in post-mortem representations in contemporary culture generally, and my doctoral research, which focused on forensic visual identification processes specifically. Forensic art practitioners know that our skills can contribute to post-mortem investigations, bring resolution to loved ones, move criminal investigations forward and restore dignity to the deceased. While this work is rich in technical theory, its cultural impact is not well understood.

Part of this study involved comparing South African procedures and attitudes with international contexts and reviewing records of over 1 000 unclaimed bodies from a Cape Town medico-legal facility, focusing on contextual data and critically assessing the associated post-mortem photographs for image quality and facial condition (recognisability).

All deceased persons admitted into a forensic facility are photographed, but there is no image standardisation, which means the resulting post-mortem photos are very unreliable.  They cannot be confidently used for a facial comparison, which is an accepted method of facial identification in the case of presumed identity, nor can they be used to create a digital depiction for a public appeal for information, which may produce investigative leads to confirm an identity by scientific means.

Of 1 010 unidentified cases reviewed during this research, only 30% had associated photographs that could be used to create a digital post-mortem depiction or 'image sanitization', an efficient process that produces an in-life image of the deceased acceptable for public circulation.

For skeletal remains, a facial reconstruction might be the only opportunity to attempt to identify an unknown person. But this process is labour-intensive and thus costly and may require expert cleaning prior to anthropological analysis and reconstruction.

While the skull reveals an enormous amount about face and feature shape, other critical visual information about someone's physical appearance – such as skin tone and texture, eye colour, hair colour, length and texture, and body mass cannot be inferred from the skull alone. But this information is usually available from a post-mortem photograph if there is sufficient facial information to infer living appearance, even with facial trauma. Digitally adjusting a post-mortem photograph to restore a plausible and acceptable living appearance is thus operationally desirable and restores some personhood to someone separated from their identity and community in death.

The way forward

Forensic identification is multidisciplinary, and collaboration is essential. We need a creative approach as current procedures cannot cope with the case burden. In line with evidence emerging from international Disaster Victim Identification contexts, we must start paying attention to secondary identifiers – contextual data, clothing, personal effects, tattoos – and compile all of this into an impactful visual presentation that is accessible to the public.

Without good basic data on hand, any further scientific innovations or communication campaigns are designed to fail. So, the training of forensic officers in standardised post-mortem facial photography and taking quality fingerprints are two cost-effective interventions that will have a significant impact.

Such training was piloted with about 90 forensic officers and undertakers from across the Western Cape in July 2022, as part of a limited project of the Western Cape Cold Case Consortium, an initiative co-founded in 2021 with colleagues from the University of Cape Town and SU.

The project is still in its early days, but we can already see the potential impact on the future identification of unknown and missing people. Officers welcomed the adoption of a Forensic Humanitarian Action framework as a way to better communicate the challenges of this work towards improving service delivery and driving innovation in complex identification processes in South Africa.

In addition to collecting quality fingerprints and facial photographs, facial depictions or reconstructions should be produced as early as possible in the identification process, and they should be shared widely on social media, with clear channels of communication from the public back to the relevant authorities.

It would also be important to pay attention to the ways in which data on missing and unidentified persons is collected and by whom to ensure these processes are inclusive of all bodies and identity expressions beyond stereotypes of 'race' and binary gender.

If we accept Sir William Gladstone's view that a nation's treatment of its dead is a good indication of how it treats its living, we must think creatively, collaboratively, and co-operatively about how to better do forensic identification in South Africa. The traumatic reality of our massive case burden also offers an opportunity to innovate in this field and potentially impact international practices.

*Dr Kathryn Smith is an interdisciplinary visual and forensic artist, chair of the department of Visual Arts at Stellenbosch University and visiting research fellow at Face Lab (Liverpool John Moores University, UK). She is a founding member of the Western Cape Cold Case Consortium, a member of international MDVI (Migrant Disaster Victim Identification) research networks, and volunteers with the Trans Doe Task Force.​