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Mix up at South African mortuary, 2-year body swap resolved

by Staff reporter
12 Mar 2024 at 05:13hrs | Views
IN September 2021, then-31-year-old Bongani Ngwendu was attacked by a vigilante group in a suspected xenophobic attack at an informal settlement in Pretoria, South Africa, where he was burnt to death in his shack. His charred remains were positively identified through DNA tests from samples supplied by his biological sister in the neighbouring country.

His remains were then taken to a local mortuary and his family based in the neighbouring country started the process to repatriate the body back to Mbembesi in Bubi District, Matebeleland North Province, for burial.

When the family fetched his body for the long trip back home, they relied on mortuary records to identify his remains since his body was burnt beyond recognition and identification by viewing at that time was not possible.

That was the beginning of the problem. The family was handed the wrong body - that of a South African national who had died in an inferno and had his body burnt beyond recognition but kept in the same mortuary.

The Ngwendu family, unbeknown to them, ferried the body of the South African and buried it at a community cemetery in Battlefields Village, Ward 13, in Mbembesi at the end of September 2021.

Six months after the burial, the Ngwendu family was notified by South African authorities that their relative's corpse was still in a mortuary in Pretoria and that they had, in fact, buried the wrong body following a mix-up at the mortuary on the day.

More than two years later, Ngwendu's body was finally buried in Mbembesi last Friday at the same community cemetery where the remains of the late South African national were interred by mistake.

Yesterday morning, the remains of the South African national were exhumed to be taken back to the neighbouring country where they will reburied in his country of birth.

A Chronicle news crew was at the scene of the exhumation and the deceased's uncle, Mr Andile Ngwendu, narrated how his nephew met his untimely death at the hands of a vigilante group and his body burnt beyond recognition.

"My nephew was killed in his home in Pretoria on 21 September 2021, by a group of men who accused him and other Zimbabweans in that area of taking their jobs.

"They (vigilante group) tied the door of his shack with a wire from outside, torched the house using petrol and he was burnt beyond recognition," he said.

"His body was identified through DNA samples supplied by his older sister but somehow the mortuary gave the funeral parlour the wrong body and we had no idea that we buried a South African here in Mbembesi until we were notified by Mr Ngwenya (Nkosinathi) after he was contacted by South African officials saying that he had ferried the wrong body to Zimbabwe.

"From March 2022, when the body mix-up was discovered, we have been living with the full knowledge that our relative was still in a mortuary in South Africa and that we had buried the wrong body," narrated the uncle.

He said according to their Xhosa tradition, a ritual called umbuyiso is supposed to be performed a year after one is buried but as a family, they could not go ahead with that ritual because the wrong body had been buried at the community cemetery.

"We have waited since March 2022 to finally bury Bongani, whom we laid to rest last Friday and today we are here to witness the exhumation of the South African national, so that his remains are transported back to his country for reburial," said Mr Ngwendu.

"The process to bring back Bongani's body has been long and tiresome but as a family, we would like to thank everyone who played a part since 2022 so that my nephew is finally laid to rest." The late Mr Ngwendu is survived by four young children.

According to Somdanga Funeral Parlour's official, Mr Nkosinathi Ngwenya, the mix-up of the two bodies could have happened as a result of the almost identical tag numbers - GA768 and GA687 -of the charred remains that were at the mortuary when Mr Ngwendu's body was collected.

"The mix-up of the bodies happened at the mortuary and I suspect that the mortuary employee made the mistake as a result of the tag numbers that were on the bodies, which are almost identical," he told Chronicle.

"It's been difficult trying to get Bongani's body here but the officials from the Embassy in South Africa, who are here today with us, have been very helpful together with his relatives," said Mr Ngwenya.

The exhumation was witnessed by officials from the Zimbabwean Consulate in South Africa, who have been working with the Ngwendu family since 2022 to bring Bongani's body back to Mbembesi, the police, an official from the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Government officials, as well as a representative from the Civil Registry Department, and villagers.

"As the Zimbabwe Consulate in South Africa, our job is to attend to the concerns of our fellow countrymen and countrywomen based in South Africa and we have been seized with the Ngwendu family's issue since March 2022 up to this point, when their relative was repatriated back home for burial and the exhumation of the South African national, who will be taken back to his country for re-burial," said Mr Albort Nyathi.

He, however, emphasised the need for Zimbabweans living and working in the neighbouring country to regularise their stay in South Africa and to also acquire essential documents such as IDs and passports to smoothen the repatriation process when one passes away while out of Zimbabwe.

"It's important as villagers that you encourage your children and grandchildren living and working in South Africa to come back home and acquire IDs and passports, so that in the event of death, it's easier to repatriate their remains back to Zimbabwe for reburial," said Mr Nyathi.

"Our offices are in Eastgate in Johannesburg and our doors are always open for Zimbabweans living in South Africa who need any form of assistance."

Village head Mr Benjamin Swene said the grave where the South African's remains were exhumed will not be used again.

"It's a taboo in our culture to bury two people in the same grave, so that space will not be used as a grave again. As a community we are happy that our son is back home and buried alongside his relatives," said Mr Swene.

A 71-year-old Bheka Kenge, said it was his first time witnessing the exhumation of a body, adding that he was too scared to move closer to the grave site where the undertakers were busy digging the grave to retrieve the remains of the late South African.

"As an elder in the community, I'm here to offer support to fellow villagers who are assisting with the exhumation process but I will not get anywhere near the grave-site.

"In all my years in this world I have never witnessed a body being exhumed, so I will keep my distance," said Mr Kenge.

Source - The Chronicle
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