They died in vain

2014-09-11 00:00

PEOPLE died on that day, young people with their whole lives ahead of them. In fact, death was the last thing on their minds and they had everything to live for.

It was the festive season and as one reader pointed out, they had just been offered the best Christmas present yet — a chance at a permanent job. They borrowed taxi fares, arranged lifts, hitch-hiked and found their way to Pietermaritzburg from all over the province.

Imagine the shock and despair to find that they had to compete with 35 000 other hopefuls for the 90 Road Traffic Inspectorate trainee posts on offer.

But run they did, in blistering heat in an ill-prepared stadium to compete in what was later dubbed “the hunger games”. Hungry for decent work in a country where the official unemployment rate stands at over 24%. People seldom remember what the weather was like even a few days ago, but speak to Maritzburgers and they can remember those sweltering hot days just after Christmas in 2012. The South African Weather Service had issued a warning of extremely uncomfortable weather, and text warnings had been sent to municipalities.

On the first day of the fitness test — December 27, 2012 — people started dropping like flies. Two health workers were later to say under oath that they spoke to the Transport Department’s head of human resources, Sindy Zwane. She refused to stop the fitness tests, allegedly saying: “We do not take orders from doctors.”

By the second day, December 28, eight people were dead, hundreds were being treated by paramedics, while others had been ferried to hospitals. It was KZN Transport MEC Willies Mchunu who stepped in and stopped the madness.

Hardened journalists who covered the event say they will not forget the mayhem at Harry Gwala Stadium. This was our own killing field. People had collapsed all around; there was chaos. Outside the stadium, a young man slit his throat after seeing his dreams dashed when he realised that he was never going to complete the four-kilometre fitness test run.

Over the next few days, we got to know the hopes and dreams of the young people who died, from their heartbroken families.

There was Lenny Nxumalo (28), a machine operator, who was the sole breadwinner in a family of seven. He never doubted the opportunities offered by a democratic South Africa and was determined to improve himself. Lenny was one of the eight who never made it.

Shortly after the tragedy, former KZN premier Zweli Mkhize set up a commission of inquiry to probe the deaths.

The commission was controversial in itself. It went on for far longer than expected — more than a year-and-a-half — and its costs soared. By the end of last year, the conservative estimate was that the commission had cost close to R15 million.

By the time it wrapped up and the final report was written, it could have cost KZN taxpayers close to R30 million. There is still the compensation that has to be paid to the families of the victims.

Last month, Premier Senzo Mchunu presented a summary of the commission’s findings. Transport MEC Mchunu apologised profusely for what had happened and said that at least four people in his department would face disciplinary action.

Since then, nothing more has been heard regarding the commission.

In fact, come to think of it, did we really need a commission of inquiry?

From the little that has emerged from the summarised report, it seems that a departmental inquiry instituted by the Transport MEC would have uncovered much of the same evidence.

Remember, the terms of reference of the commission were to investigate and report on the appropriateness of all planning, co-ordination, management and administrative processes undertaken for the recruitment exercise.

Right from the start, The Witness had shown that it was fairly obvious what had gone wrong. A new human-resource team had taken over the recruitment process and it did not consult or involve the RTI College that had run the recruitment process before with similar high numbers.

It did not decrease the number of applicants using other means and ran a haphazard, ill-prepared operation.

Surely, given the gravity of the situation, heads must roll and those implicated should never be allowed to work in the public service again?

The families, the medics who worked tirelessly to save lives, the journalists who covered this heart-wrenching story, and all decent people of KZN, remain deeply affected by this tragedy.

We cannot forget that young people died cruelly and in vain on those two fateful days.

• Nalini Naidoo is a reporter at The Witness.

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