By LOYISO DYONGMAN
Thirteen-year-old Asanele Qomfo drowned in a flooded construction trench in the open veld between Xolani informal settlement and Vergenoeg on Saturday, 25 September.
According to residents, children were swimming in the trench after a pipe was damaged during earthworks.
Resident Mandla Mahlasela alleged the municipality had failed to empty the trench or post security guards or barriers.
“The negligent Makana Municipality just ignored the deep pool that had formed,” Mahlasela said.
However, Makana Municipality spokesperson Anele Mjekula said the trench had been dug by service providers working on the Makana Bulk Sewer Phase 1 project. Community members had removed the safety net and danger tape that had surrounded the site.
Adherence to the safety regulations was maintained through barricading the site, he said. “However, this became futile, as the community kept on exposing the trench by stealing the net and the sticks for their personal use, thus exposing the public to danger,” he said.
“The municipality and the appointed service providers are working with the family to ensure that the deceased is afforded a decent funeral. This is to show compassion and a sense of responsibility. This should not be confused with an admission of guilt.
“The parties are still awaiting the finalisation of the investigation to determine how the matter will be concluded. Offering compensation on the matter that is still under investigation would be premature.”
Mjekula said once the contractor is appointed, the construction site is handed over to the contractor to execute work according to the scope of works entailed in the contract agreement. This happened under the direct supervision of the consulting engineer, who serves as the client’s/employer representative.
“The Municipality is the client that has to exercise oversight through monthly (structured) site visits and Adhoc (unstructured) site visits,” said Mjekula.
He said it was reported that three boys went swimming in the open trench about 2.5m deep with mud and water. Qomfo was trapped in mud and drowned.
Mjekula said the trench was opened to enable pipe-laying and construction of the maintenance hole. However, progress was slowed by the high water table – underground water kept seeping through and filling the trench.
Mjekula said the municipality was “humbly appealing that members of the public and media be patient and allow due processes to unfold”.
“This is a very sensitive matter that requires to be handled with the utmost decency.”
“Members of the community are urged not to do anything on the site of the scene. This would tamper with the evidence collated during the investigation,” said Mjekula.
Qomfo was a Grade 4 learner at Amasango Career School. Principal Dr Girlie Shadaya said Asanele was a promising learner who loved soccer. “We are hurting as a school. This shows us how the municipality is failing us – if there were amenities, such as a swimming pool, this would not have happened,” Shadaya said.
Former principal, Jane Bradshaw, said, “This is an absolute tragedy and devastating for the school.”
Provincial police spokesperson Colonel Pricilla Naidu confirmed the incident. “Police can confirm that on Saturday 25 September 2021, at about 2.30 pm, the body of a 13-year-old boy was retrieved from a trench filled with water on a construction site in Vergenoeg, Makhanda. It is alleged that the boy was swimming in the ditch with other children when he drowned. An inquest docket was opened for further investigations,” said Naidu.
Lungile Mxube, interim convenor of the Makana Citizens Forum (MCF), which will contest the upcoming local government elections in the Makana Municipality, was working with the family to enlist attorneys to sue both the Makana Municipality and the contractor.
A resident who wanted to remain anonymous said municipal officials had come to the site two days after the drowning and had “placed a thin net” around the pool of water, again failing to drain the water or post a security guard there. “It will be a miracle if further children do not drown in this pool in the next few days. You can’t just leave a trench like that knowing that there are kids who will go and play there.”
Makana Citizens Forum members tried to fill the trench, but the ground was too hard. They dug channels and managed to drain about a metre of water from the hole.
Several South African children have died due to negligence associated with municipal infrastructure in the recent past.
Earlier this month, a six-year-old boy, Khomanani Mahwa, fell into a sewer maintenance hole outside his Orange Farm home.
And in late August, two-year-old Imthande Swartbooi drowned after falling into an uncovered maintenance hole in Greenpoint, Khayelitsha.
Nkosikhona Swartbooi, the child’s uncle, an activist in the Social Justice Coalition, an organisation that campaigns for better sanitation, posted on Facebook that Greenpoint residents had repeatedly requested the City of Cape Town to fix broken, blocked and overflowing drains. He said the drain into which Imthande fell had been left open “for a while”.
“After hearing of my family’s tragic loss, the City immediately sent out its water and sanitation staff to fix the broken drain,” posted Swartbooi.
“How many children must die in this very undignified way for the City to realise its constitutional obligation to provide basic services to poor and working-class communities?” asked Swartbooi. – GroundUp