Flash flood washes away 17 pupils on their way home from school – only 11 survived. But why were there no bridges?
Luvuyo Nyangiwe (31) stands on the bank of the Mgxojeni River holding his son Liqhame by the hand and fighting back the tears.
He stands on the exact spot where his seven-year-old daughter, Sinentlantla, was swept away and drowned along with five other schoolchildren two weeks ago.
Seventeen children – including the six aged between five and eight who died – were making their way to their homes in Freystata village from school when they were swept away in a flash flood.
Their village near Mount Fletcher in the Eastern Cape has no school of its own, and the children walk for 6km and cross three rivers to get to and from Popopo Primary School in Popopo village.
None of the three rivers has bridges for people to safely cross, and children as young as five take off their shoes and roll up their trousers before they cross.
Nyangiwe (31), a security guard who works in Cape Town, travelled back to the Eastern Cape on Tuesday to bury Sinentlantla, his eldest child.
“I was telephoned by my mother who informed me about the sad news. I was shocked. I did not know what to say. I am still feeling pain every day,” he said.
“Sinentlantla was such a lovely child. She was very playful and protective of her younger brother, Liqhame. She was a very respectful and happy child. She wanted to be a nurse and she will never realise that dream.”
It was a devastating crossing of the Mgxojeni River for Nyangiwe and Liqhame, whose father had told him what had happened to his beloved sister.
Liqhame cried uncontrollably as his father lifted him up to cross the water on their way home – after taking off his shoes and rolling up his jeans.
Nyangiwe now feels he has failed his daughter.
“I feel so bad because Sinentlantla was in Cape Town at school for the past few years and this was the first year she had been attending school here in the village. I had just bought her new school uniform in February,” he said.
“It is so sad that children have to die because they want access to education. I feel that government has let them down by not building a school for these children or, at the very least, building a bridge between these two villages or providing them with transport. They have failed on all accounts.”
Neither the car City Press was driving nor a four-wheel drive vehicle belonging to the SA Defence Force – which has been brought in to build a bridge over the Mgxojeni – could cross the rocky river.
Without a bridge, the only way across is on foot.
“I went to the same school and I used to walk the same distance and also cross those three rivers from when I was doing Grade R until I finished Grade 8. Nobody has drowned there before, so perhaps government did not see anything wrong with our situation,” Nyangiwe said.
“Now that our children have died, they are trying to build bridges and roads. Does it take our children dying before government can give us services? Our children’s lives were cut short by something that could have easily been avoided.”
Lebaleho Morai, a teacher at Popopo, said the entire school was in shock. She said that when the foundation phase children were sent home at 1pm, there was no sign of rain.
But the weather changed quickly and by the time the school principal had sent word to parents to look out for their children who were already on their way home, it was too late.
A storm in a nearby village caused a flash flood.
“Just moments before these children were swept away by the floods, others had already crossed the river successfully. But as the other group was crossing, the flood came and they were swept away,” she said.
Morai said 17 children were swept away at once and 11 were rescued by villagers who had realised that the children were in trouble.
The bodies of Sinentlantla and four of her schoolmates were found hours later. The body of the last child was only found on Tuesday after initial unsuccessful searches by police divers.
They were all buried on Saturday at a mass funeral.
The youngest victim was in Grade R; the eldest in was in Grade 3. They were Sinentlantla, Boitumelo Lebenya (5), Hlalanathi Mbuleka (6), Masixole Moleko (7), Elomso Ntsimbi (7) and Sinekhaya Mfolozi (8).
Last Wednesday, exactly a week after the tragedy, officials from the SA National Defence Force could be seen in the village after Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula ordered soldiers to immediately build a bridge where the children had drowned.
Asked why the children had no state-supplied transport, Eastern Cape education spokesperson Loyiso Pulumani said they were “on the waiting list”.
“The school is on a scholar transport waiting list as 93 pupils have applied to be ferried from April 1 in the new financial year,” he said, adding that the district management team had provided counselling to pupils and teachers, as well as support for families.
“The local representative of the department of transport servicing the Joe Gqabi District Municipality has been informed of this unfortunate incident with a view to provide immediate relief and prevent any further loss of innocent lives,” Pulumani said.