SU part of trailblazing team using facial depictions to help SAPS identify bodies

Stellenbosch University (SU) is part of a pioneering research consortium that has used digital facial reconstruction to produce facial depictions of five unidentified people whose remains were found between 2020 and 2022 in Philippi East, Mitchell’s Plain, Mowbray and Lentegeur.

The realistic images are part of a public appeal for help in identifying these bodies, and the last chance for the South African Police Service (SAPS) in the Western Cape to bring closure to families who may be desperately searching for information about their whereabouts.

The public appeal is one outcome of a joint pilot study of the Western Cape Cold Case Consortium (W4C), funded by a CHEC-City of Cape Town regional innovation grant in 2021. 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 worked together to provide enhanced analysis of the five cases. The facial depictions represent the synthesis of findings derived from forensic pathology, forensic anthropology, digital imaging, craniofacial analysis, isotope analysis and forensic genetics.

Dr Kathryn Smith, a senior lecturer at SU and Pearl Mamathuba, a lecturer and PhD candidate, produced the facial depictions in SU’s VIZ.Lab. 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,” says Smith.

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.

There is an enormous emotional cost for families who may never know that a loved one is deceased, adds Smith. “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. This brings hope to many families looking for answers and eases the burden unidentified cases places on our forensic facilities.”

The W4C is a registered social impact initiative at SU.