Murder rate means Cape Town's huge new morgue is already too small

The new mortuary in Observatory, Cape Town, is two-thirds complete and will admit its first body in January.
The new mortuary in Observatory, Cape Town, is two-thirds complete and will admit its first body in January.
Image: Sipokazi Fokazi

Cape Town's soaring murder rate means its new mortuary will already be too small when it opens next year.

Professor Lorna Martin, head of the forensic pathology service in the Western Cape, said even though the R281m Observatory building is more than double the size of the existing Salt River mortuary, it will not cope.

“Even though this is new and we are moving in, it’s already not big enough," Martin said during a media tour of the morgue.

"With the increase (of the amount of murders) that we’ve now had lately, I don’t think we will cope."

Martin said the upsurge in murders meant there were also too few pathology staff.

"We are working very hard to ensure that we do have enough human resources to staff this. But there is risk because there are always budgetary constraints," she said.

In the past week, the state mortuaries in Salt River and Tygerberg had admitted 170 bodies, said Martin. Almost 1,300 murder victims arrived at the mortuaries between January and April, leading to warnings that Cape Town risks becoming the world's most dangerous city.

Unidentified bodies were fuelling the crisis, she said, occupying about 130 of the storage fridges at Salt River.

Lorna Martin, the head of forensic pathology in the Western Cape.
Lorna Martin, the head of forensic pathology in the Western Cape.
Image: University of Cape Town

Martin said that at Salt River, space constraints had resulted in bodies being stored in refrigerator shipping containers.

"Here, hopefully, we won’t have the containers, but if we have murders at this rate what else is there to do?" she asked.

Although by law health authorities can keep unidentified bodies for only 30 days, in reality they are kept for months until the police can identify them.

The new three-storey building, at the entrance of Groote Schuur hospital, will enable better integration of forensic pathology services, the National Health Laboratory Service and academic staff from the University of Cape Town. 

Set to be completed in October, the facility will include four dissection suites with six tables each, as well as teaching and training dissection suites.

There will be 360 refrigerated body spaces, 180 admission fridges and 180 dispatch fridges. In addition, the building will be able to accommodate up to 100 visitors to the bereavement centre per day, including undertakers and students.

Health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo tours the new mortuary on July 9 2019.
Health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo tours the new mortuary on July 9 2019.
Image: Sipokazi Fokazi

The design incorporates natural light through glazed autopsy rooms and a courtyard that allows light deep into the working areas. The public areas have been designed to create a serene environment focused on outdoor green spaces.

It will also have five in-house labs, including:

  • Odontology, to help identify ages of patients based on their teeth;
  • Entomology, which studies insects to detect when people died; and
  • Anthropology and DNA-testing, which will be used to identify mostly charred bodies and skeletal remains.

The current mortuary doesn’t have any labs and uses UCT labs or outsourced services from private labs.

Health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo said the new mortuary would admit its first body in January. It would also accommodate students training in pathology, and crime investigators.


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