‘I blame myself for letting her go to school’ – families of KZN schoolgirls washed away by a raging river speak out
It was a routine they did almost every day – climbing hills, navigating sugarcane fields and crossing rivers on their way to school.
They were used to the 10km round trip and whiled away the time talking of their dreams for the future and of the day they would escape poverty.
But those dreams died when cousins Nontethelelo (17) and Zenande Mcanyana (13) and their friend Nondumiso Shobede (16) drowned on their way home to Mpaphala near Eshowe in KwaZulu-Natal recently.
Pupils at Ndlongolwane High School had been sent home early due to heavy rains and the Matimofu River was a raging torrent that had swept away the bridge the friends used to cross it.
Another cousin, Nkanyiso Mcanyana (17), was walking home with the three and was the first to attempt to cross the river. He was also the only one of the four to escape with his life.
“I was in the middle when a strong current with logs, stones and grass swept me away. I could feel myself being carried off by the water,” he says, still traumatised.
“When the others realised I was in trouble they jumped into the water and tried to help me, but the flow was too strong. “I found a branch of a tree and held onto it. I managed to pull myself out of the water and when I looked back I saw the others being carried away. “I saw them drowning.”
Everything happened so fast, Nkanyiso adds. “I was shocked and devastated – I didn’t know what to do. “Since that day I haven’t been able to sleep,” Nkanyiso says. “All I do is cry. I still have flashbacks.”
Life comes to a standstill in the area when it rains. It’s hard enough already with most residents living in mud houses, and the parents here worry about their kids on the long walk to and from school.
But Nontethelelo’s aunt, Celiwe Mcanyana, says there’s no alternative – Ndlongolwane High is the closest school in the area. She’ll never forget the day her niece died.
“She woke up as usual, prepared for school and left home at 6.30am. She always left at that time because she had to be at school at 7.30am. On that day I was particularly worried because it was dark and raining hard,” Celiwe says.
Nontethelelo never returned home. Her mom, Dolly, is sitting quietly in the room, unable to utter a word. Nontethelelo’s older sister, Deli Mcanyana (30), tells DRUM they were called by one of the relatives, who told them to rush to the river.
“When we got there we couldn’t cross it as it had burst its banks. I could see my sister’s hands clasping a branch of a tree but her entire body was under the water. Her schoolbag was still on her back.”
Zenande was her firstborn, her mom Sindisiwe Mcanyana (39) says. She loved going to school but that day her mom found it hard to wake her up.
“I had to force her to get up. Now I feel guilty, I blame myself for letting her go to school. I will miss everything about my daughter – she was shy and respectful and always had a big smile. She loved children and wanted to become a teacher someday.”
Zenande’s grandmother, Khanyisile Mcanyana (62), describes the teenager as a sweet and humble child who had dreams of a better life for herself and her family.
Nondumiso’s mom, Senamile Mpanza (35), is also struggling to deal with the pain of losing her firstborn. She’d hoped her daughter would be able to get out of their poverty-stricken life.
“I spent most of my money on her because I wanted to secure her future,” she says, sobbing. She places the blame squarely on the ward councillor and the municipality who have done little to uplift the area.
“This could have been avoided but nobody cared. I don’t even know how to explain this to Nondumiso’s five-year-old sister, Alwande. Every day she wants to know when her sister is coming home and I don’t have answers.”
No one wants to take responsibility for the lack of service delivery in the area, fed-up residents say. Siphamandla Mhlongo (21), who lives next door to the Mcanyanas, says children have had to cross the river for years and when it rained the bridge always became dangerous to use.
Siphamandla is the one who recovered the bodies of the girls from the river.
He used to go to the same high school and learnt to swim out of necessity, he says. Siphamandla became worried when the rain wouldn’t stop that day and went to the river to check if the children needed help crossing.
It was something he did when it rained – but this time he was too late. “When I got there I just saw people crying and knew something had happened.”
Local resident Celumusa Mkhize says they panic when it rains hard for days on end. “Not even an ambulance can come and pick you up in an emergency,” he says.
“People have died here and they are still going to die because there’s no service delivery.” Ward councillor Fikile Luvuno blames the transport department for the tragedy.
“They are letting the community down. We have three bridges that are not working, all of them collapsed a long time ago but there’s no progress on them. I don’t know why they are not being fixed – it’s been more than 12 years already.”
Umlalazi municipality spokesperson Mkhuseli Buthelezi says attempts have been made to get the transport department to attend to roads and bridges in the area.
“Floods can cause damage even to well-constructed roads and bridges. In this instance the bridge was created by the community and it wasn’t up to standard. I believe soil erosion occurred during the floods causing the ground to become unstable.”
KwaZulu-Natal transport department spokesperson Kwanele Ncalane says this is a tragedy no one anticipated.
“It is grossly wrong and inhumane for us to be pointing fingers at one another. We are taking responsibility for this. Our job is to maintain all roads, including the small ones.”
The school wouldn’t speak to the media about their protocol for sending children home in the rain, referring all queries to the provincial education department.
Department spokesperson Sicelo Khuzwayo says it’s not always possible to provide transport to learners who travel long distances to school due to budget constraints.
“We urge parents to take responsibility and keep their children at home when conditions are not safe.” The bridges will now be fixed, he vows.
Tragically it’s too late for three young girls who are gone forever.
Drum attempted to contact Sicelo Khuzwayo for an update on whether bridges had been fix but received no feedback.