School tried to conceal Michael Komape’s death, court hears

The Limpopo High Court heard today how the governing body of Mahlodumela Primary School and its management team tried to conceal the news of the death of Michael Komape, who died when he fell into a pit toilet at the school.

Komape was only five years old, in Grade R, at the school in Chebeng village outside of Polokwane, when he drowned in faeces in the school’s pit toilet on January 20, 2014.

James Komape, Michael’s father, was the second witness to be called to testify this afternoon in the trial that started on Monday. His wife Rosina testified yesterday.

The Komape family, with the assistance of advocacy group, Section 27, brought a civil lawsuit against the Department of Basic Education and the Limpopo Department of Education demanding that the state pays damages because the pit toilet was not fit for human use.

A frail looking James told the court that he had been visiting the local chief’s home to ask for land to build a community library when he received a call from the principal asking him if he had seen Michael.After the call, he had tried to get hold of his wife countless times but failed to reach her.

While trying to get hold of his wife he received another call from the principal telling him that he needed to rush to the school. “I could hear my wife in the background crying that I needed to come quickly because Michael had fell in the toilet and died,” James told the court.

When he got to the school he went to the toilets and searched all of them trying to find the one that had killed his son. “The principal came and showed me the one where Michael had fallen into. I saw Michael’s hand sticking out [from the human waste] and I asked them that we must pull him out to save him,” he said, but he was told that people had already been called to retrieve his son from the pit.

He told the court that he sat next to the toilet where his son had perished until the paramedics eventually came, after a long time of waiting, to pull him out.

While waiting with his friend, he had asked him to take pictures of the dilapidated state of the toilets because he could not believe that the school would allow small children to use “those shocking, dangerous toilets”.

The friend left James to go buy a cool drink. James then saw from a distance that his friend was surrounded by the members of the SGB, all the school teachers, principal and a police officer. He would later learn that his friend was being ambushed to delete the shocking evidence.

“I asked Charles what was that all about and he told me that they wanted him to remove the pictures from his phone and when he refused they took the phone from him and deleted the pictures. He told me that they said they did not want the incident that had happened to spread,” said James. Later the principal also came and told him that they had deleted the pictures because they did not want the “incident to spread”.

However, James asked his friend to take the pictures again and those one were not deleted.

“I do not know why they said they did not the incident of the death of Michael to spread spread because it happened at that school,” he said.

He said when Michael’s body was finally retrieved it was placed on a piece of cloth but he did not want to see it because he was to distraught and feared that seeing it would have made him ill.

James told the court that his family is poor and that he was unemployed. “What broke my heart about Michael’s death is that I did not even have money to bury him,” he said.

He begged for donations through an interview he had done with the SABC following his son’s death.

Earlier in the day, the court heard from Rosina how Michael’s funeral was made possible by the donations the family received from people and big businesses. She said the provincial department of education only came on Thursday after Michael died on Monday – to bring groceries.

The groceries were already finished by the day of the funeral which took place on Sunday.

Rosina said she was hurt that the department and the school management team including the SGB showed little support to her family regarding funeral arrangements even though the incident had happened under their watch.

However the state advocate, Simon Pashwane, questioned her testimony saying that she could not claim that the department failed to give her support. He said the defendents would bring a witness who would testify that the provincial department had arranged for an undertaker and also brought a tent and chairs to the family as a way of assisting with funeral arrangements.

He also said that the department had attempted to give the Komape family R450 000 to make “this case go away” but the family had refused it.

Rosina said she had refused the money because she felt it was an “insult” because her child died young and he had a whole life ahead of him. She also said she wanted it to go to court because she wanted it to be a “lesson” to the department to better care for schools so that a similar incident does not happen.

Pashwane responded that Rosina was now making the case about other people and not about what happened to the child.

“The case is about the Komape family because if a similar incident happens again it will open my wounds. No person will feel the pain I felt as a person who had carried that child for nine months; people will say ‘sorry’ and move on with their lives, sleep at night, but they will never know how I feel. This case is difficult for me and my family,” she said.

The case continues tomorrow with James Komape back on the stand.

Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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