It’s a business that people hardly knew existed 20 years ago. It is also not for the faint hearted. Some call it the business of death, but it is broader than that. Murders, suicides, and decompositions are just some of the scenes that Eileen de Jager and her sister, Roelien Schutte, attend to most days.
Their business, Crime Scene Clean Up, started 17 years ago, when Eileen and Roelien saw a need to start a business that would save people from the trauma of having to clean up crime scenes of their loved ones or friends.
“We discovered this idea after we saw one of our neighbors had to clean her daughter’s suicide scene. We decided we needed to do something to change this,” says Eileen.
When the sisters started out they used to travel to scenes around the country with a minibus equipped with everything, including a kitchen sink.
“The only thing we were short of was a shower,” Eileen chuckles.
Today, the business employs about 32 people and has nine branches across South Africa. The Blood Sisters, as they are popularly known, started the business with only practical experience. In a challenging and demanding field like this, the sisters felt a need to further their skills by studying. Roelien and Eileen’s husband, Francois, who is the CEO of Crime Scene Clean Up, went for waste management courses, while Eileen studied environmental health.
Studying further was important to grow the business.
“Having the knowledge and professional skills to do the job enabled us to understand this work better,” says Francois.
They are the last to arrive at a crime scene. Eileen says they do their job so thoroughly it can be difficult for law enforcement officials to extract evidence afterwards.
Crime scenes vary in nature – some are more suited to a woman and others a man.
“Women are usually labeled as cleaners in a household, hence I never found it difficult to adapt, but sometimes there’s an emotional attachment that we sometimes leave behind,” says Eileen.
Before becoming entrepreneurs, Francois, Eileen and Roelien had nine-to-five jobs. Francois was a motor mechanic, while Eileen was a foreign exchange trader. Despite the blood and gore, Eileen says crime scene cleaning can be easier.
“What I am doing now is less stressful than what I used to do when I was in the corporate space,” says Eileen.
An ordinary day of work can border on the bizarre for these entrepreneurs. One day, Francois called Eileen while she was at a scene, wearing her mask and bloody gloves in the middle of a cleaning operation, to ask what she wanted to eat for supper.
“Can you imagine how ridiculous this is,” the couple say simultaneously, as they share a chuckle.
This profession is no laughing matter though. According to Eileen, cleaning a crime scene without professional help may lead to respiratory problems and post-traumatic stress.
“You must be compassionate and this field must be something that you want to do,” Eileen warns.
There is also bureaucracy to deal with. After fighting for years for their business to be recognized by the law in South Africa, the three say they still have to fight every year for their renewals.
“Like any other business in the country, there are fake ones that register for the same business and mess it up, making more problems for us with the government,” says Francois.
Eileen, Roelien and Francois aren’t just in this business to make millions, they’re also working hard to bring tranquility to a troubled period in someone’s life.
This Woman Could Save Your Life
It’s a sunny August morning in Midrand, 30 kilometers north of Johannesburg. In a calm, yet busy, environment sits a crew responsible for despatching the emergency services that could save your life.
Nokonwaba Mgcoyi, a 35-year-old mother of two, has been working for the 10111 center – a 24-hour crime reporting call center – for more than 10 years. Today, she takes us through how the center operates.
The Gauteng regional centre, where Mgcoyi works, is South Africa’s largest. It caters for the 12 million people that live in the Gauteng province.
It’s a faceless profession, which some have seen as non-functional for decades. Though it is not listed under essential services, it is crucial for the public.
“10111 has become part of my life as I spend 80% of my time serving the public through the center,” says Mgcoyi.
Women are sometimes perceived to be vulnerable and incapable of handling pressure, but Mgcoyi seems to be calm and confident while on duty.
Mgcoyi deals with trauma on a daily basis, including domestic violence, accidents, murders, robberies and gang violence. The call center’s agents, like Mgcoyi, deal with up to 200 phone calls a weeknight and as many as 10,000 on a weekend night.
Although the public constantly complains about the effectiveness of the 10111 center, Mgcoyi says they work very hard in a challenging job.
“For us it takes up to 10 minutes to take a call and despatch a van. What happens after that is up to the police,” she says.
“10111 has two divisions, the call center that answers the calls, and the despatching department that despatches the vans according to the location of the emergency.”
A lack of resources can make a difficult job even tougher.
“A shortage of vans in police stations is one of the major problems that we face,” she says.
Hard decisions also have to be taken. Mgcoyi has to prioritize emergencies according to their importance.
“We categorize the emergencies from alpha complaints, which are known as priority number one, down to the least threatening situations. This helps in ensuring that high priority crimes are given preference.”
In South Africa, where a high crime rate is the norm, and the roads are perilously dangerous, the service that people like Mgcoyi offer is vital.