South Africa: information for bereaved on murder, manslaughter and suspicious deaths

Information and advice if a family member or friend has been a victim of murder, manslaughter or died in suspicious circumstances in South Africa.

This information is to help you understand what you need to do if a British national has been a victim of murder or manslaughter or has died in suspicious circumstances in South Africa and you are the next of kin.

You should also read the guidance available on what you need to do if you are bereaved through murder or manslaughter abroad, and what support The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) can provide.

Post mortems (autopsies)

For all murder or manslaughter (culpable homicide) cases a post mortem will be conducted. A docket is immediately opened by the South African Police Services as soon as the body is found and the family can obtain the Case Reference Number (CAS) for the docket from the South African Police Services and liaise with the Investigating Officer. In some cases you may be asked to help identify the deceased.

Information on the mortuary and the location of the body can be obtained from the Investigating Officer. Once the post mortem is completed the body of the deceased will be released, either to the family or an interested party. There is no authorisation from next of kin necessary to conduct the post mortem.

In the event that a special request is made to the South African Police Services in advance, these may be taken into consideration at the post mortem. In some cases it can take many months for the post mortem and report to be finalized. An interested party can request the post mortem from the South African Police Services, more specifically the Investigating Officer allocated to the docket. You should also be aware that any hospital bills must be paid before the deceased can be released.

Private Post Mortems and Toxicology testing care available. The local mortuary and undertakers can supply further information on how to arrange these.

Organ retention

During a post mortem, organs can be removed for testing, including toxicological studies, at the discretion of the doctor. The organs are normally retained and not returned. In practice organ removal and retention only rarely happens. However, you may not be informed by the South African authorities about any organ removal or their retention; and you may be charged for this. We understand that this can be upsetting and we will do everything that we can to keep you informed and prepare you. You may need to consult a local lawyer to help lobby for the return of any organs.

Burial, cremation and repatriation

Cremation facilities are widely available and are usually well equipped. A cremation can take up to 24 hours to arrange. If you choose to have a local cremation you should be aware that the urn may also contain bones as well as ashes, which could be upsetting.

The deceased may not be released for burial, cremation or repatriation if a post mortem has not been finalised. This does not mean that the family will have to wait for the post mortem report.

Standards of mortuary vary. There are facilities with temperature controlled storage in most parts of South Africa but they may not be available in some rural areas. Although we will do everything we can to ensure the deceased is placed in appropriate storage we cannot guarantee mortuary conditions.

Sometimes local embalming methods mean that the full range of tests cannot be done if a subsequent post mortem is requested. Embalming procedures can be necessary before repatriation and may have an impact on the efficacy of any subsequent post mortems (for example, if a second post mortem is ordered by a Coroner in England or Wales).

Your local funeral director will be able to arrange a locally registered death certificate. The local funeral director will then liaise with an International funeral director to produce a certificate of embalming, and a certificate permitting transfer of the deceased to the UK;

Police investigations

Time frames for police investigations vary and can take months or even years. Local authorities will normally share what information they can during an ongoing investigation directly with you or a consular official, although it can vary from case to case.

It is not necessary to appoint a lawyer or become a civil party to obtain information although you may wish to consider this if you are not resident in South Africa and require regular updates. If a case is closed and no one is found guilty but you feel the circumstances around the death were suspicious you can submit a request direct to the relevant South African Police Station, where the case was originally opened. However, a case will only be re-opened if further supporting evidence can be provided.

If the perpetrator of the murder is not caught any evidence and file will remain active for life. This means if a suspect is arrested for another crime and fingerprints or DNA match that of another he will be charged on all counts and the case re-opened

Local judicial process

A party will only be involved in the criminal trial if the State intends calling him/her as a witness. A witness statement will be taken by the South African Police Service and the witness will be informed when he/she is required to attend the criminal trial in South Africa. If a witness fails to appear a subpoena will be issued.

As an interested party in the prosecution, a local lawyer can be engaged on a watching brief basis to attend the proceedings and liaise with the authorities to ensure that the criminal trial is dealt with correctly. The criminal trial can only take place when the investigation by the South African Police Services has been finalized, which can take months.

The death penalty has been abolished in South Africa. You only need to become a party for prosecution if you were involved with the original investigation. Time frames for inquests/court hearings or trials are determined on a case by case basis.

Other useful information

  • If the deceased was permanently resident in South Africa at the time of death then a lawyer will need to be appointed by you to manage any of their personal possessions or assets and act as their executor as appointment by the Master of the High Court;
  • If there is any media intrusion locally the British High Commission communications team will be able to help provide advice. South African media is not known to use graphic images but social media is a lot more intrusive;
  • There are no local support organisations nor are there any local compensation schemes that we are aware of.

Neither the British High Commission nor HM Government accept legal liability with regards to the content of this information sheet.

Published 21 April 2017