How Africans are using DNA testing to find out if they've been cheated on

by Methil Renuka, editor of FORBES WOMAN AFRICA* 0

(FORBES WOMAN AFRICA) In December, when most people were opening Christmas gifts, Nevin Siralen Pillay was unwrapping packages containing semen-stained underwear and bras.  

It was a busy month for him and business as usual, unpacking innocuous boxes with questionable contents and addressing strange requests for human DNA testing, from South Africa and beyond.

It would be an understatement to say Durban-based Managing Director of DNATest, a South African company specialising in relationship and forensic DNA testing, leads an eventful life.

His office could be regarded as part-lab, part-theatre, judging by the cast of characters who walk in every day – anxious men waiting to confirm the paternity of ‘their children’, suspicious women wanting to nail cheating spouses and long-lost family members seeking to establish their biological relationship.   

Pillay says he gathers his wits about him every day, laughing at life’s tragicomedies. This is the only way, he says, he can cope.

“I tend to deal with it by making a joke of it and hoping for the best. For instance, there are so many cases of paternity tests, but at the end of the day, a child – an innocent party – is involved, and I tell people not to forget that.”

Although he has marketing in his genes – “I am very marketing-minded” – Pillay’s career was not meant to be in genetics, of all things. He studied sports management and is a self-confessed sports freak into tennis, cricket, soccer, offroad 4X4 driving – and he visits the gym five times a week. After university, he didn’t venture far, starting out as a sales manager in his family’s chemical business in Durban.

“I come from an entrepreneurial family. I joined my family’s business Chemlog, an established chemical manufacturing business that has been around for the last 27 years.”

He was with Chemlog until 2007, which was when certain pertinent incidents in his life and career contrived to change his destiny, draining him ‘emotionally and physically’.

That year, he got divorced and also faced an armed robbery that changed his thinking – forever.

“I have been a victim of four armed burglaries in my life. The first one was when I was at home in Durban. The next three were when I was at work. Each time, I have been beaten and roughed up. But the third time, one of the burglars spat on me, and I waited for an hour until the police arrived. The cops asked me to wipe the spit off my face. And I thought: ‘there is DNA there, why wouldn’t you use it?’ That’s when the idea hit me, and I started researching the use of DNA for forensic analysis… It soon dawned on me that South African legislation did not allow for the outsourcing of DNA forensic work.”  

“I was watching [investigative journalism TV show] Carte Blanche one night, and they had a segment on the backlog in forensic crime in South Africa. This was on Sunday night. On Monday, I had decided I wanted to open a lab in South Africa. [To start with], paternity tests were the way to go.”

Pillay approached DNA Solutions, an Australian-based DNA testing and research organisation, to give him the initial support to start the operation.

He founded his company, DNATest, as a testing laboratory in Durban in 2007, with the vision of exploring commercial forensic testing. His intention was simple: to help trace perpetrators of crime in South Africa using DNA evidence, while making a business of it. In 2009, his was also the first company to launch the home paternity test kit.

“I didn’t come from a medical background, so I had to learn all about it. In the beginning, it was just based on word of mouth – we did two tests a month. In the second month, we did ten. I wasn’t selling milk and bread. This was a product somebody looked for only when needed.”

Pillay introduced the DNA test kit to the South African market, in retail pharmacies such as DisChem, where one can purchase a R1,000 ($65) paternity kit over the counter.

“Over time, we see a trend from an economic point of view. A guy would rather pay R1,000 on the test than pay monthly maintenance [for a child that was not his].The lower to middle income groups find paternity tests are an easy way out,” says Pillay.

And there is awareness about it among all income groups now, says Pillay, thanks to the ‘television soapies’ and detective serials such as CSI portraying DNA analysis.

Clients purchasing the home test kits use oral swabs to collect cheek cells containing DNA from inside the mouth, and then get in touch with Pillay’s office to have the samples collected. They are then analyzed and the results discreetly disclosed. The accuracy of results, says Pillay, start from 99.9%, which is exceedingly accurate for paternity testing.

Today, Pillay’s company is growing from strength to strength. His clients include royalty, politicians, celebrities and the common man. He also works for child welfare groups, where relatives of orphaned or abandoned children want to confirm their biological relationship.

Last year, DNATest recorded a R10 million ($654,341) turnover. Pillay had started his company with capital of R100,000 ($6,543). His formula for success? 

“Blending medical technology with clever marketing, as it’s a commercial product,” says Pillay.

One of the highlights of his career was the high-profile DNA analysis in 2011 commissioned on behalf of the royal Zulu family of the late Zulu queen Thomozile Zulu who had died in 1959, and secretly buried. King Goodwill Zwelithini wanted to give his mother a ceremonial reburial, after years of not knowing where her remains were. The DNA test confirmed the remains were his mother’s.

“Our part was a forensic DNA analysis on bone. We were able to employ the best possible technology and experts available to match the sample for maternity to that of the king,” says Pillay.

The whole process was ‘a logistics nightmare’ however, as they needed to find a casket for the bones, which had to be dispatched – respectfully – to some of the most advanced labs in the United States.

“I spent sleepless nights,” recalls Pillay, but in the end, it got him recognition and the confidence to surge ahead.

“We are dealing with people’s lives and cannot afford to make mistakes. We have so far never made a mistake. We have never had a case of disparity of results,” says Pillay.

More recently, for the company, infidelity tests are proving to be more popular. Pillay says he has enough anecdotes to write a book – or a crime novel. But his job is not entirely a treat for the senses.

The samples – bras, underwear, bedsheets, cotton buds contaminated with anything from saliva to blood and semen – come from all over, traveling long distances in unsuspecting parcels from as far as Russia, China, Australia and Malta.

Pillay delivers another salvo.

“Then there is this case of a well-known, wealthy family in the Eastern Cape. The husband employed a private investigator to check if his wife was cheating on him. Every Monday, without fail, we would receive a semen-stained lady’s bra, for a semen-detection test. It continued for a period of six weeks. Eventually, we did prove that she was cheating on him.”

In another case, he recalls a 22-year-old girl from Durban who arrived at his door with her child and three guys, asking to test which one of them was the father of the child.

“It took us seven days to conduct the test, and at the end of it, I told her: ‘are you ready for this?’ The tests revealed that the child’s father was a fourth guy who was not present in the room. The girl was so blasé about it, but the three guys who came with her looked really relieved.”

Infidelity tests can be done for as little as R2,000 ($130), but what continues to amaze Pillay are the lengths suspicious men and women will go to acquire tangible evidence. Specimens could be anything from hair to clipped nails to ear wax to chewing gum, dental floss and cigarette stubs.

Pillay also offers services in Namibia, Zimbabwe Malawi and Botswana. On occasion, he says he has even had the Hawks (a special unit targeting organized crime in South Africa) approach him for assistance on cases.

His company handles about 250 relationship tests a month, of which about 10 to 20 are requests for infidelity tests. While more tests mean more business, on the flip side, it also speaks of society’s ills.

“[Typically], there is a surge in paternity tests from August to October. Because it is in December and January that people are sleeping around,” says Pillay, as you do the maths.

In his own life, have these trends put him off marriage and commitment? Pillay says it has.

“I think I was hurt very badly after my divorce, and [even] among your network of friends, you see the guys who cheat, the women who are not happy…”

For now, he is a happy man in his off-hours, enjoying the outdoors and the sunny Durban beach in his trademark shorts and t-shirts. But he is never too far away from a package with his name on it and a damning sample that could change somebody’s life forever. 

*This article first appeared in FORBES WOMAN AFRICA. Subscribe today by emailing Lieria Boshoff: [email protected]