The Department of Health and the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) has agreed to work together to address the current delays in releasing Muslim bodies from the Salt River mortuary.
The recent spike in deaths across the city had caused a major mortuary backlog, leaving Muslim families waiting for days, surpassing the customary 24-hour period for Muslim burials to take place.
This sparked anger among Muslims, with families waiting for hours outside the Salt River Forensic Pathology Services in Durham Avenue, often leaving without their loved ones and having to put funeral plans on hold.
Faizel Jacobs, from Manenberg, waited for nearly seven days before the body of his cousin, Ashraf Jacobs, was released from the mortuary.
Ashraf, a talented sportsman who had had dreams of playing at a higher level, was stabbed to death outside his Manenberg home last month, leaving the family in complete shock.
“He was the baby in the family, the one everybody could get along with and every weekend, the family would all try to go watch him play.”
Apart from being an athlete, Ashraf had also played soccer, rugby and cricket.
“He played for everybody, wherever he could get some game time,” Mr Jacobs said, as he patiently sat outside the mortuary, occasionally glancing at the main entrance.
The family were forced to postpone the funeral, every day facing family who had come to pay their respects.
“We were here on the day he got stabbed, as it happened in the early hours of the morning. We sat around and could get no answers. We had everything waiting for him (Ashraf) at home and everything was in place.
“We even said a few prayers outside the mortuary on the third night of his death and the only thing we could do is wait,” he said.
Also affected last month were the Raban family who were forced to wait for six days before Shafiek Raban could be laid to rest, with family members lining the pavement outside the mortuary waiting for his body to be released.
Shafiek had been shot multiple times in Mowbray last month, in what is believed to have been a hit, and was buried six days later.
Several other cases were reported around the Cape and families became disgruntled at the progress, forcing the MJC to call an urgent meeting with the provincial health department.
According to the Department of Health, there had been a 12% monthly increase of the number of bodies brought to the mortuary between July and September. In 2016, the body count for the same period had been 306, while this year there had been 479 bodies brought in.
On Tuesday November 14 , an agreement was reached between the two parties, which would see the waiting time for Muslim autopsies slashed from six to two days.
Chairperson of the Cemetery Board, Sheikh Riad Fataar, explained that the provincial health department had presented statistics which revealed that during the last month, there had been a reduction in the timeline for the release of Muslim bodies.
According to Mr Fataar, the department had pointed out that the delays were caused during the identification of the bodies. “The MJC promised to assist with the identification process by using social media and radio to share information of the deceased in order to find the families,” he said.
Mr Fataar also said an agreement between the two parties had included implementing further measures to ensure that the backlog of autopsies was cleared. “Included in the agreement is that mortuary staff will not be taking leave over the December period so that any further backlogs can be cleared,” he said.
“While we are happy that the department is willing to assist in this process, we continue to emphasise that Muslim bodies must be returned to the families within the agreed 24-hours,” Mr Fataar said.
According to a statement from the MJC, Health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo, had approached the provincial legislature to assist with the delay at the Western Cape Mortuaries, but budget restraints meant that nothing substantial could be done at this moment.
This, however, could not be confirmed as the Department of Health had not responded to questions by the time this edition went to print.
Mr Fataar confirmed that a follow up meeting would be held in January next year.
The Jewish Board of Deputies, however, said they had not been affected by the delays. The Jewish faith also requires the deceased to be buried as soon after death as possible.
Board spokesperson, Liza-Jane Saban, said they had had four burials last month, which had not been affected by the backlog.
“The mortuaries are generally respectful of Jewish customs and laws, like those of Muslims, where burials need to take place as soon after death as possible. On the rare occasion that there should be an issue, the family rabbi along with the Chevra Kadisha (Jewish Burial Society), who take charge of a body at death, will usually proactively approach the relevant people at the mortuary to release the
body for the funeral,” Ms Saban said.