#IAM Nameless: The untold story of South Africa’s abandoned babies

by | Abandonment

During Child Protection Week 2018, the #IAM campaign aimed to name the child victims of violence across the country, and tell their stories. But as the shocking accounts of some of the country’s child murder victims and countless others whose lives were devastated by rape and abuse filled the media, it became clear that there was a group of children largely unrepresented by the narratives.

They are children whose stories we don’t know, the ones who have died through abandonment: nameless and faceless ones, some killed violently, others without intent, but always publicly unmourned. Now one woman is helping us to tell their stories. One of South Africa’s own “Bone Women”, she is committed to giving these children a voice and confirming that #BabiesMatter.

Thousands of unclaimed bodies placed in mass graves conjure up the images of genocide. These are scenes that played out in Europe in World War II and more recently in Rwanda, Croatia, Kosovo and other places of large-scale murder, images associated with the now famous “Bone Woman”, anthropologist Clea Koff.

“One of a team of forensic experts sent by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to investigate the mass graves of Tutsis, murdered during the genocide of 1994, she had the job of reuniting the heads with their bodies, scattered down a grassy hillside in Rwanda, and in so doing to determine their age, sex, stature and the manner in which they had been killed. The notes she kept at the time, and those she wrote later describing mass graves in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, have become The Bone Woman” the Independent (UK) reported.

The significance of the work that Koff and others did can not be under-estimated. Their role in identifying bones not only restored dead loved ones to their families, but also helped bring their murderers to justice.

These are not pictures that we associate with South Africa though. But we probably should, because hidden far from the public eye in this country are state burial sites containing thousands of babies who died either before or after abandonment. These are babies in desperate need of being identified, claimed and, in some cases, to have their murderers bought to justice. The tragic difference between South Africa and the countries where the Bone Woman worked, however, is that here there is no will to identify these children, for families to find them, or for the authorities to bring their murderers to trial.

So, although they are afforded the insight of an autopsy, investigations into their deaths often stop there. They remain in the mortuary for the prescribed 30 days where they could be claimed by relatives, before being buried in poorly marked pauper’s graves with large numbers of other bodies, young and old.

Despite being classified as stillbirths, autopsies frequently prove that babies were born alive. And although many are quite obviously murdered, there is seldom a resultant criminal investigation, or even an inquest opened. Equally important, there are no national initiatives to identify these children. Researchers are in desperate need of support from the government and civil society to get identification protocols approved and into usage. These protocols are being developed though, along with standards for forensic investigation. One young South African woman who cannot be named because of the sensitivity of her study, is currently working with a few other researchers to assist with the forensic identification of the victims of abandonment.

The work, which includes the use of individual bones, nucleic acids and dental tissues, is foundational for future initiatives that will lift the veil on these hidden cases. But although that is some way in the future, the study itself has already provided some important awareness about abandonment. All of the babies in the study came through one mortuary in Johannesburg, where about 20 babies per month were admitted (approximately 240 per year). The babies waited 30 days to be claimed prior to forming part of the study. During the investigation, not one of these abandoned babies was claimed before the end of the waiting period.

The study, which uncovered a prevalence of infant remains, confirmed the frequency of unnatural infant deaths in the first six months of life. It provides insight into the volumes of dead abandoned babies passing through mortuaries, the distressing truth that so few of these babies are ever claimed by family, and the fact that many of these babies did not die accidentally through unsafe abandonment, autopsies showed that they were murdered.

Importantly, the investigation belied the myth that most abandoned babies are pre-viable foetuses. Of the cases where age could be determined, some babies were 26 weeks and under. These were not viable babies and legally deemed to be medical waste. However, this was the smallest group in the study. A larger group of babies were post-26 weeks and therefore viable. Of these, a small number were stillborn. But records show that others were classified stillborn, yet autopsies proved that they were born alive, only to die later from abandonment or at the hands of a family member. During Child Protection Week, we met Baby 12599, a baby born prematurely when her mother had a late term abortion and then drowned her in a pit latrine. She is typical of a baby who survived abortion, but not the abandonment that followed.

The largest group of children in the bone study were postnates, babies aged between birth and 7.5 months. This unexpected finding indicated that many of these children were not abandoned at birth, but spent time living with their mothers or in families prior to their death. Equally interesting is the gender breakdown of these babies. The majority, 61%, were girls, and 39% were boys. Police reports (in the infrequent cases where the information was available, and the case had been reported), and autopsy reports, indicated that a number of these children died as a result of blunt or sharp force trauma, strangulation or being dropped from windows or off bridges.

One of these babies is Baby H. This is his story.

I am Baby H

My mother was 15 years old when I was born.

My father was 45 years old and married. He told my mother that if she had sex with him, he would make sure that she could get lifts to school.

He would not let her use birth control.

When my mother fell pregnant, my father gave her money and told her to abort me. But she decided not to take my life.

My father was angry with her when I was born and left her alone.

My grandmother was angry too. She said now my mother would not finish school. She said she would not look after me.

My mother named me Happiness because she thought I would make her happy.

But she wasn’t happy, she left school and felt afraid about how she would care for me.

She was so alone.

One day, I cried too much, I cried all day.

She cried too, then she hit my head on the wall.

I was five months old.

My mother left me out on the street far away from where she lived. She did not come and find me after I died.

The police thought I was an abandoned newborn and opened a case of concealment of birth. Although the autopsy found that I had lived and breathed and had died of an injury to my head, no one investigated or tried to find my mother after she hurt me.

I was buried in a mass grave with many other bodies, other children and some grown-ups.

I am Baby H, I am dead.


Like Baby H, Baby 11778 was killed and abandoned after her birth. This is her story.

I am Baby 11778.

My name was Nandi, but it is forgotten, just like me.

I was my mother’s fourth child.

When she was five months pregnant, she tried to abort me, but the clinic said that she was too late.

My father hit her. He said he didn’t want me. She didn’t want me either.

My brothers and sister lived with my granny, but she didn’t have enough money to feed me too.

When I was born, my mother left me alone in her room with the radio on and a bottle propped up next to my face. I was always hungry.

I was six weeks old when they had a fight about me. My father broke a bottle and hurt her. Then he left.

My mother used the bottle to stab my neck and face. She left my body in a plastic bag next to a dustbin in the suburb where she worked.

The policemen who found me said that I was stillborn.

The autopsy said I had died from sharp force trauma but there was no police investigation, and no one came to claim my body.

They buried me in a pauper’s grave.

I am not Nandi, I am Baby 11778, I was murdered and abandoned.


It is noteworthy that neither Baby H’s nor Baby 11778’s deaths were investigated. Perhaps due to case load or negligence or an unwillingness to process the cases of dead babies, not all abandoned babies result in an inquest, fewer still in a police case.

These findings were confirmed by a study conducted in another Johannesburg mortuary. 95% of the babies classified as unnatural deaths in that mortuary over a five-year period were abandoned babies. The majority (21.5%) were found in a dump site, 17% were found in water works, 12% were recovered from the street or under bridges, 9% were found in dustbins, 8% in open fields, 5% in hospitals and smaller numbers were left in shacks, at police stations or buried in shallow graves.

However, not one of the deaths was under investigation. And, equally disturbing, 86% of the cases autopsied were classified as concealment of birth. According to the law, concealment of birth refers to: “any person who, without a lawful burial order, disposes of the body of any newly born child with intent to conceal the fact of its birth, whether the child died before, during or after birth”.

The actual cause of death was not listed in these cases, often due to the circumstance of their disposal. But, along with the other causes of death, like head injuries and asphyxia, there were clear indications that many of these babies died violently. The upshot is that where there was intent to kill, parents are getting away with murder.

This should also bring into question our murder statistics for children. According to the statistics released in parliament prior to Child Protection Week, 2,600 children were murdered in South Africa over the last three years, approximately 867 per year. If the number of babies brought to just one mortuary in Gauteng in one year is an indication of how big the problem is, (up to 240 babies), the number of unnatural child deaths in South Africa is being drastically under-reported. In the mortuary study that focused on abandoned babies, there were 331 bodies autopsied between 2010 and 2014; 81.2% of those (269) were unnatural deaths (that is, approximately 54 per year). It is confirmation that if abandoned babies in every mortuary in South Africa were added to the list of unnatural deaths, the number would increase dramatically.

Make no mistake, analysing bones is not glamorous, not on a hill in the killing fields, or wading through a box of baby’s bodies in a mortuary in South Africa. Nor is the painful task of recreating identities. But distressing as it is, it is critical work. In previously war-torn countries, Cleo Koff’s investigations led to the prosecution of many mass murderers. It remains to be seen what our South African bone woman, and the work of others like her will achieve in this country though. Until there is a will to find the victims, to give those victims the recognition of a family burial, and press charges where there was intent to harm, the only possible outcome is that it will give babies the dignity of an identity in death.

But even a name can never be enough. It is essential that we start hearing these children’s stories, see their faces, and engage with both the reasons why they died, and who they were in life. Only when we do, when we start investigating the circumstances of their death, keeping statistics about how and where they died, and begin prosecuting their killers where there was intent to kill, can we even begin to say that #BabiesMatter. DM

First published in the Daily Maverick: 08.06.2018

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