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Identity Theft In A South African Morgue

Amazingly enough, no matter how crazy our country gets we are a darn sight better than many of our neighbours. Many people from countries around us flee to South Africa for a better life. Only problem is for the better life you sometimes have to produce a South African identity document. These can be easily bought from corrupt government officials, but why buy one if you can borrow one?

I was working in Qwaqwa. It was an amazingly poverty-stricken place with what seemed to me to be almost total joblessness. I truly don’t know how the people survived. And yet people from neighbouring Lesotho would still move there illegally. I’ve never been to Lesotho personally but if Qwaqwa was a better proposition, then I can’t even imagine how bad life in Lesotho must have been.
Anyway, one day I got to work and was confronted with a sticky problem. The police were there and they apparently needed my help. You see as it turns out, a Lesotho illegal had died a week before in our hospital. In order to qualify for admission to our hospital she needed to be South African. Luckily her sister was the proud owner of a South African identity document and had simply lent it to her, along with her name. I assume they looked similar enough that the clerk working in admissions hadn’t noticed the picture in the book wasn’t that of the patient. More likely she simply didn’t check. The problem was that the patient had been declared dead by the doctor on call that particular night. Or rather the patient’s sister and her ID had been declared dead. At that stage no one yet knew who the patient was.

However, when the sister attempted to draw money at her local bank a day or two later, she was shocked to find out that her assets had been frozen on account of her being dead. This upset her because even thought she had been declared dead in her absence, aside from a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, she felt quite alive. Suddenly it seemed the right thing to do to come clean and admit that she had lent her sister her identity document and therefore her identity.

Now the problem that the police at the hospital had was that they needed a fresh death certificate for the person lying in the freezer in the morgue whose identity they now knew. They presented me with the papers to sign. A small difficulty was the papers required me to identify the body as this new dead person. The police were quite willing to forego this technicality and get my signature. However I felt the entire problem had started because of a casual disregard for the finer points of the law. I was simply not willing to sign a document saying I had identified someone as dead if I had not identified said person as being in fact dead. Logic may have dictated that someone who had been lying in the morgue freezer for a week, even if they had not been dead when they got there would probably be dead by then, even if they had simply succumbed to boredom, but I felt I needed to look if the forms that I was required to sign stated that I had looked.

And so the sister, the cop and I took a stroll down to the morgue. The sister and the cop went on, a bit too much if you ask me, about the madness of the doctor in insisting on seeing the body. The last time I had been forced to go to the morgue was in the dead of night so actually I was, relatively speaking, in fairly good spirits.

Even being in good spirits and even in the light of day a morgue is not a great place to be and identifying the body of someone who had been on ice (along with her sister’s identity and bank account) is actually quite difficult. The normal human features seemed withered and pulled back, revealing a sort of grimace, as if she knew what cruel trick she had played on us all. I was not impressed. The form required me to see the body and see the body I had. I left, signed the form and walked away.

Later I could see the humour of the whole thing. I also couldn’t help thinking only in South Africa could such absurdities take place.

*This blog post was originally published at other things amanzi*

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