Wounds that will not heal

2017-11-12 06:02
Michael Komape, two months before he died

Michael Komape, two months before he died

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Time has not healed the family of Michael Komape (6), who drowned in human excrement after falling into a dilapidated pit toilet at his school in Limpopo three years ago.

Michael’s brother Moses (12), who is in Grade 6, is still haunted by nightmares after his brother’s horrific death at Mahlodumela Lower Primary School in Chebeng, 20km from Polokwane, on January 20 2014.

“He is still troubled. He saw everything,” says Michael’s mother, Mankone Komape (46).

At times, she hears Moses, who used to walk to school with Michael every morning, talking about the incident in his sleep. His school marks have dropped and he is withdrawn.

“He still plays with other children. But when you mention this incident, he becomes really sad. I don’t know how he is going to cope in court,” says Mankone.

Tomorrow, the Limpopo High Court in Polokwane is set to hear a case in which the Komape family is suing Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, the MEC for the Limpopo department of education, the principal of Mahlodumela and the school’s governing body.

The Komapes’ two elder children, Mokibelo and Khomotso, are the third and fourth plaintiffs.

Moses, who witnessed his mother’s agonising screams as Michael’s lifeless body was retrieved from the toilet, is set to give evidence in the lawsuit.

The family says in its submission to the court that the departments and the school governing body breached their constitutional obligations.

They are demanding a payment of R940 000 for emotional trauma and shock, and a further R2 million for the grief they suffered.


The Komapes are also demanding a sum of R208 454.80 for future medical expenses, funeral costs and loss of earnings.

Sitting at his wife’s side in the family’s lounge this week, Michael’s father James Komape (51) says: “We are ready for this battle.”


The hands of time have not eased the pain of losing their son. Mankone pauses often to compose herself as she flips open the tragic pages of memory.

Tears well up in her eyes. Her voices rises in a mixture of anger, grief and frustration.

James speaks slowly, his low voice heavy with grief. He has watched his other children suffer in silence, grieving for their dead little brother.

“We sent the child to school. He fell into a toilet. The toilets were dilapidated. They had no doors,” he says.

Komape received news of Michael’s death while walking home from the tribal authority. He and other members of the community had visited the authority to ask for a piece of land on which they hoped, through donations, to build a library for local children.

The grisly sight of his son’s hand protruding from the depths of the pit toilet continues to haunt him. “To see my son like that,” he pauses.

“That was painful, very painful. In my entire life, I had never seen a human dying in a toilet.”

Komape says Michael’s death has silenced the laughter and merry chit-chat that once prevailed in their home.

“My family is hurt. My wife is always crying. My children are always sad. There is no more laughter in the home. There is no more conversation among us. Everyone just sits in silence,” he says.

Lobby group Section 27 and the Tebeila Foundation have joined the case as friends of the court.

Section 27 arranged counselling for the family, and Mankone says the sessions have helped, but she is worried about Moses, who is set to attend more sessions.

“The pain we felt should never be felt by another parent,” says Mankone.

“We are doing this so that others should not suffer like we did. We want government to help; to build proper toilets in schools.”

The department is opposing the Komapes’ lawsuit on the grounds that “the incident can best be described as an accident”.

In its plea submission to the court, the department argues that the toilet into which Michael fell was neither dilapidated nor unsafe, and therefore its state could not have led to the boy’s fall.

The department also denies that it, its officials, or school authorities could have known that the toilet was unsafe.

It also denies that the toilet seat was loose, unbalanced and could not support Michael’s weight – as argued in the Komapes’ submission.

Last month, during a meeting to discuss the department’s 2016/17 annual report, the parliamentary portfolio committee on basic education heard that the department performed badly in respect of the replacement of inappropriate infrastructure at schools, and in respect of the provision of sanitation, water and electricity to other schools without these services.

During his release of national and provincial audit results last week, Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu said the department spent 93% of its R12.6bn budget in 2016/17 on school infrastructure, but only 16 out of the targeted 59 schools that are part of the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative were built.


The project was also only able to build toilets at 30 out of 265 schools, and only 29 out of 280 received water.

Section 27 attorney Bhavna Ramji says that, while data from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research “shows somewhat erratic improvements” on sanitation in schools countrywide, there are two main problems.

“One, we know there is a huge backlog in delivery of acceptable toilets and there is simply no comprehensive plan to address these backlogs, only an ad hoc approach, which is completely inadequate for a problem of this scale – it means that the various provincial departments will only fix toilets if and when they happen to become aware of them.”

She says the second problem is that, once sanitation is delivered, there are no maintenance plans in place to keep toilets in safe and usable conditions.

“You therefore see toilets quickly becoming decrepit and needing to be replaced.

"In most cases, schools are not funded adequately to maintain sanitation facilities, so this needs to become part of national and provincial planning.”

Mankone says the conclusion of the case will help the family move towards closure. “They should wipe away our tears. They brought about these tears.

IN NUMBERS

THE PROVINCIAL EDUCATION BUDGET - R28.4bn

THE NUMBER OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS - 3 868

THE NUMBER OF PUPILS - 1 679 178

THE NUMBER OF CLASSROOMS THAT DO NOT COMPLY WITH THE MINIMUM NORMS AND STANDARDS FOR PUBLIC SCHOOL INFRASTRUCTURE - 9 045

THE NUMBER OF PIT LATRINES OR BUCKET TOILETS IN SCHOOLS - 8 710

Read more on:    education  |  service delivery

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