WATCH: This is how police and two Cape universities are using technology to crack cold cases

Two of the facial depictions or Digital Facial Reconstructions that the team were able to reconstruct from. Picture: Supplied/SAPS

Two of the facial depictions or Digital Facial Reconstructions that the team were able to reconstruct from. Picture: Supplied/SAPS

Published Nov 21, 2023


A collaboration between the University of Cape Town (UCT), Stellenbosch University (SU), the Western Cape Government and SAPS has resulted in facial reconstructions of five people whose remains were discovered between 2020 and 2022.

According to one of the researchers, the project aims to bring hope to many families looking for answers and eases the burden unidentified cases place on our forensic facilities.

The public appeal is one outcome of a joint pilot study of the Western Cape Cold Case Consortium (W4C), funded by a City of Cape Town regional innovation grant in 2021.

The deceased were found in the areas of Philippi East, Mitchells Plain, Mowbray and Lentegeur.

Senior lecturer at SU, Dr Kathryn Smith explained that an interdisciplinary team of expert research-practitioners based in SU and the University of Cape Town and the Western Cape’s Department of Health Forensic Pathology Services have worked together to provide enhanced analysis of the five cases.

She said the facial depictions represent the synthesis of findings derived from forensic pathology, forensic anthropology, digital imaging, cranio-facial analysis, isotope analysis and forensic genetics.

Working alongside lecturer and PhD candidate, Pearl Mamathuba, the team produced the facial depictions in SU’s VIZ.Lab.

Smith said SU’s Visual Arts Department is the first at a university in Africa, and one of only a handful in the world, to offer research and casework experience in forensic facial imaging.

"Identification in such cases is greatly enhanced by public circulation. It is really their last chance to be reunited with their names and hopefully their kin, so that they may be granted the dignity of proper interment. The investigation of those who may be responsible for their deaths can only be pursued once a victim’s identification is known. May these individuals be identified soon," Smith added.

What does the W4C do?

The W4C views the inability to identify hundreds of unnamed bodies as a humanitarian crisis. Unidentified human remains places a strain on South Africa’s healthcare system as they require considerable resources for investigation, storage and burial. They also suggest that reported statistics on missing persons may not be accurate. Knowing their identities may also contribute to a better understanding of migration within, and into, South Africa.

Smith said there is an enormous emotional cost for families who may never know that a loved one is deceased.

"Families with missing loved ones exist in limbo; the not-knowing is extremely painful. By working across forensic disciplines and with government, we can gain new insight into unresolved forensic cases. This type of trans-disciplinary research, combining existing and experimental methods, and fostering good communication between agencies and with the public, can only improve forensic service delivery.

Police spokesperson, Warrant Officer Joseph Swartbooi, called on anyone who may have information based on the attached facial depictions to contact Detective Sergeant Yolande van der Merwe on 082 411 3808.

Picture: Supplied/SAPS

Picture: Supplied/SAPS

Picture: Supplied/SAPS