Stakeholders say this is just one symptom of a health department which is itself in intensive care. And unions and opposition parties say there is no political will to arrest the situation.
Aside from the mortuary problem, there is an oncology crisis, which the department denies exists despite the findings of the SA Human Rights Commission against MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo.
Last week a long-standing dispute over wages led to the forensic pathology services staff embarking on a go-slow.
The Public and Allied Workers’ Union of SA (Pawusa), an affiliate of the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (Denosa), said the impasse dated back to 2006, when the department took over mortuaries from the police service.
Yesterday, Pawusa provincial secretary Halalisani Gumede said Dhlomo’s “uncaring” attitude had led to the unions resolving to intensify their action into the festive season.
There were 34 bodies at Fort Napier yesterday, while Park Rynie had 14. Gumede said bereaved families would have difficulty in getting remains for burial this weekend.
He said Port Shepstone mortuary employees had booked off sick since last week, and this had prompted the health department to appeal to the provincial police for assistance to retrieve and transport bodies to the mortuary.
Denosa provincial organiser Mandla Shabangu said the go-slow affected nurses and other staff at healthcare facilities.
“Nurses get stressed when a patient dies in the ward because, with mortuary fridges getting full, the deceased have to be put on the floor in the ward or another available space until they are removed to the mortuary. The risks of misidentification of bodies are high. Let alone the trauma our members and other patients are exposed to,” he said.
Shabangu said it was “revolting” that Dhlomo would be defended by both the provincial government and the health portfolio committee, despite evidence that he was incapable of running the department.
“For him to go to a mortuary (Fort Napier) and dissect bodies is very wrong. Every time he fails in his mandate, he runs and seeks public sympathy,” Shabangu said.
He said they had instructed Cosatu to facilitate a meeting between them and the ANC provincial leadership to seek an explanation as to why no action had been taken against Dhlomo.
The DA and IFP called for the department to present a detailed contingency plan to address the effects of the ongoing strike.
The department said it would make pronouncements on its contingency plan and the seeking of assistance from the police at the “appropriate” time. The police would not comment on the letter from the department requesting assistance.
The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union said it supported Denosa’s call for heads to roll.
“It’s time the MEC does the honourable thing and resigns. We will engage the premier (Willies Mchunu) on this matter. If he (Mchunu) is not prepared to engage, then we will take action,” Nehawu provincial deputy secretary Mduduzi Chiyi said.
Attempts to get comment from Mchunu and health portfolio committee chairperson Yusuf Bhamjee were unsuccessful.