Symes sought to identify trauma in high-profile murder case in South Africa

Mercyhurst forensic anthropologist Steven Symes, Ph.D., departs Sunday for South Africa, where he is expected to apply his expertise in bone trauma to help establish the cause of death for two men whose murders could be linked to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ex-wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Since 2008, when Symes was publicly credited in South Africa for his role in identifying the remains of the Pebco Three – three black South African anti-apartheid activists who were abducted by South African Security Police in 1985 and murdered – he has made an annual pilgrimage to the country analyzing and researching trauma cases while teaching others to do the same.

In addition to working on cases, often high-profile human rights cases, Symes lectures at the Forensic Anthropology Research Centre at the University of Pretoria, where he was recently appointed an “extraordinary professor” in the department of anatomy.

Next week Symes is expected to examine recently exhumed skeletons believed to be those of missing activists Lolo Sono and Siboniso Tshabalala, who vanished more than 24 years ago and at least one was reportedly last seen with Madikizela-Mandela, who has been suspected of playing a role in their deaths, according to South African news reports.

Symes will be working at the behest of the Missing Persons Task Team in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the SAPS Victim Identification Centre. The two bodies, suspected to be those of Sono and Tshabalala, were recently tracked by the Missing Persons Task Team to paupers’ graves in Soweto’s Avalon cemetery.

Argentine forensic anthropologist Claudia Bisso, working in South Africa, said Symes will evaluate the remains for evidence of the knife attack that took place nearly a quarter of a century ago.

“It definitely will be a challenge,” Symes said. “In general, determining sharp trauma requires good preservation of bone and we are working with remains that were buried in less than optimum conditions for 24 years.”

He said he has been assured that South African authorities will provide him with stereo microscropes, at the level he uses in his work at Mercyhurst University, to assist in reconstructing the injuries and validating with science the cause and manner of death.

During his two weeks in South Africa, Symes is also expected to present a paper at a symposium being held at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s medical school in Durban.

PHOTO: Steven Symes teaching bone trauma in one of several international settings he visits each year.
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