/ 25 April 2008

Rights commission to monitor baby-deaths probe

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) will monitor investigations into the cause of the deaths of nearly 80 Eastern Cape babies, the body announced on Friday.

SAHRC spokesperson Vincent Moaga said that instead of starting its own investigation, the commission had decided to monitor the progress of the investigation undertaken by the Department of Health, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry and the Ukhahlamba municipality.

Earlier this week, reports emerged that 78 children from the Eastern Cape towns of Barkly East, Maclear, Sterkspruit and Elliot had died as a result of diarrhoea allegedly caused by contaminated water.

Moaga said the SAHRC had been ”really concerned” after hearing reports on the deaths.

He said although a date had not been decided upon for when the SAHRC would start its monitoring of investigations, it would be ”quite soon”.

He said the SAHRC would engage with all the departments involved to obtain information on the investigations.

On Thursday, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry said it was involved in an intensive investigation with the Health Department and municipality to establish whether contaminated water had caused the death of the babies.

An official health report, tabled last week at a closed council meeting, indicated that there had been a breakdown in a water-purification works in October last year.

Urgent action, including declaring an emergency in the area, was apparently recommended but not carried out.

The municipality said the Cloete Joubert Hospital in Barkly East failed to report the deaths in time for a proper investigation, but a senior hospital manager said the municipality did nothing until 15 deaths were reported.

The portfolio committee on water affairs and forestry is expected to arrive in the affected areas on Tuesday to conduct its own investigation into the matter.

Chairperson Cornelia September said on Thursday it was important for the committee to get first-hand information about the situation.

”It will enable us to bring back a report to Parliament to take any relevant decisions on our own findings.” — Sapa