Millions of migrants have slipped in through South Africa’s porous borders for years without documentation. They live a life of anonymity. And when they die, they remain unidentified: 4,311 in the Gauteng province between 2014 and 2017.
A lot of the bodies end up in a mortuary in Hillbrow, the country’s busiest morgue, with 3,000 bodies being investigated every year. Ten percent of those remain unclaimed and unidentified. When undocumented migrants die and nobody claims their body, their deaths are not counted in any national or intentional tally.
Ever since Francis Nkomo went missing 10 years ago, his older sister Banele has been waiting for a sign of life. “I miss him,” says Banele while holding his picture, all she has left of her brother. “I miss him a lot.”
Francis, a Zimbabwean migrant living in Johannesburg, was 29 when he disappeared, one of thousands who have gone missing in South Africa.
Maybe Francis Nkomo lies in one of those graves. His sister is hoping for an answer. “I’m just praying to see him back,” Banele says. “Or if someone can tell me that he died, we can all have peace.”
In this Friday, Aug. 24, 2018 photo, Zimbabwean migrant Banele Nkomo holds a photograph of her missing brother, Francis. She doesn't know what happened to him and hasn't from him for years. She says she misses him every day and wants to know whether he passed away and where his body is in order to find closure.
In this Friday, April 6, 2018 photo, Johannesburg downtown is seen from above. Millions of migrants jostle for work in the thriving underground economy of Gauteng province, whose name roughly translates to “land of gold.” Thousands of them die without identities or simply disappeared during their journey.
Zimbabwean migrant Kholakele, who lives with her husband Arnold and their five children in a crammed building in downtown Johannesburg, has heard the stories of people gone missing. The family entered the country illegally three years ago to find work.
Afraid that one day they will end up as anonymous bodies in the streets of Johannesburg, where crime rates and traffic accidents are steep, they barely let their children out of sight.
“If one of them stays away for longer than 10 minutes, we phone them,” says Kholakele.
In this Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018 photo, Zimbabwean migrant Kholakele carries her 6-month old baby in her apartment in Johannesburg. Kholakele and her husband Arnold (left) know stories about missing migrants via friends and relatives. They fear for their five children. If one of them leaves their apartment in Johannesburg downtown for longer than ten minutes, they phone them.
A lot of the dead bodies end up in a mortuary in Hillbrow, one of the city’s most dangerous and notorious neighborhoods, for pathological research. It’s South Africa’s busiest morgue, with 3,000 bodies being investigated every year. Ten per cent of those remain unclaimed and unidentified.
The fingerprints and DNA collected of the unidentified are used to create a more detailed database that police can use for future identification, or relatives can search to find a loved one.
In this Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018 photo, a man killed in a mob justice in Johannesbrug is carried away to be transported to a mortuary. Of the 3,000 bodies that come into the Johannesburg mortuary each year, approximately ten percent remains unidentified.
In this Wednesday, April 18, 2018 photo, a pathologist takes fingerprints of an unidentified male for forensic examination at a mortuary in Johannesburg. The fingerprint are sent to a database of the South Africa police department in order to find a match. If not, the bodies get buried in so called "pauper graves".
After pathological research, they are brought to their final resting place, the Olifantsvlei cemetery, a large plot of farmland outside Johannesburg. Men in white overalls lower the chipboard coffins one by one, in stacks of five, into nine-feet-deep holes in a field of high grass and dried red earth. When the men leave, all that is left are tiny placards with “pauper” written on them.
In this Thursday, April 12, 2018, photo mortuary workers bury the coffin of an unidentified male in a so called "pauper grave" at a Olifantsvlei cemetery outside Johannesburg. At least five bodies of unidentified people are buried on top of each other in each grave.
In this Monday Oct. 1, 2018, collection of photographs, the remains of a black unidentified adult male are seen. The remains were found in August 2018 in a field in Johannesburg and brought to a mortuary for identification purposes. Once a demographic profile is estimated it will go to the victim identification center in the South African police department to create a facial reconstruction.