Public Protector South Africa concerned about new complaints against Phoenix Mortuary
The Public Protector South Africa (PPSA) is concerned about new revelations of forensic pathology malpractices at the Phoenix Mortuary in KwaZulu-Natal. Widely publicised information suggests that staff at the facility lack basic tools of trade, supplies and protective equipment. It has also been alleged that certain medical apparatus are no longer in good working condition, leading to occupational health and safety hazards; and that the intake of bodies is not commensurate with the capacity of fridges, resulting in corpses lying on the floors.
These complaints come a little over three years since the release of a March 2019 PPSA investigation report which revealed widespread problems in government mortuaries across the province, including the Phoenix facility. Among other things, the investigation established at the time a lack of well-trained and experienced Forensic Pathologists, insufficient equipment, poor cooperation between the South African Police Service and Pathology Services on pauper burials and delays in issuing post-mortem reports. These were found at the time to have prejudiced bereaved families.
The report followed a systemic investigation into alleged improper conduct and legislative noncompliance by the department, leading to substandard public service delivery at the facilities in question. Similar to the latest complaints, the complainants in the initial matter, Medical Rights Advocacy Network, had alleged in May 2015 that bodies piled up on floors, in trolleys and trays. In addition to the Phoenix facility, that investigation covered Gale Street, Pinetown, Pietermaritzburg and Port Shepstone Mortuaries.
To remedy the maladministration, the head of the provincial health department (HOD), among other authorities, was directed at the time to ensure that there was quarterly monitoring of mortuaries to ensure compliance with all relevant legal prescripts; verify the number of vacant administrators’ posts at all provincial mortuaries; and provide the PPSA with a detailed report on measures put in place to capacitate the facilities. The HOD also had to develop a Standard Operating Procedure for the use and safe-keeping of mortuary equipment, including security measures to prevent theft of the equipment.
Recent revelations about the alleged state of affairs at the Phoenix facility are a source of grave concern for the PPSA when viewed against a report on the implementation of the remedial action received in June 2019 from then Acting Head of the Department, Dr M Gumede. Dr Gumede’s report gave the impression that the department was seized with the implementation of the remedial action. The PPSA believes that had the remedies been implemented as suggested by Dr Gumede, conditions at the Phoenix facility as reported would have been different.
The PPSA and the provincial government discussed the matter on Friday, July 29, 2022. They agreed that teams from both sides will meet in the coming week to identify all outstanding work out of Dr Gumede’s report for implementation in a shorter period, considering the time that has lapsed since the release of the PPSA report of 2019.
The PPSA has also launched a new own-initiative systemic investigation to focus on new issues not covered in the initial investigation concerning the Phoenix facility. In this regard, investigators will be writing to the department, requesting a response to the allegations. The team will also request a meeting with the department and labour unions before visiting the site of the facility to conduct an inspection-in-loco.