Emfundisweni Primary School teacher Fikile Mokhethi adjusts the orange scarf which offers a pop of colour to her all-black outfit.
This is the colour scheme which all the teachers were wearing to the memorial of the children who died when flames engulfed their home in Alexandra on Sunday.
Mbalenhle Fihlani, 5, Nonhlanhla Ngubeni, 7, Sandile Ngubeni, 4, and Amukelani Ngubeni, 2, all died in the fire.
Their mothers — sisters Bongiwe Ngubeni, 31, and Nelisiwe Fihlani, 28 — were reportedly at a tavern when the fire broke out and had left the four under the supervision of a 14-year-old who managed to get out of the burning house. But help came too late for the younger ones.
The two sisters were arrested and charged with child negligence and culpable homicide. They appeared at the Alexandra magistrate’s court on Tuesday.
They will remain in custody until their bail application hearing on September 28 and the court is set to decide whether the mothers will be allowed to attend the burial of their children on Thursday.
“Whenever I gave homework or instructions, I knew Nonhlanhla would submit excellent work and that is because she was encouraged by her mother,” says Mokhethi.
She added that she doesn’t know exactly what happened and doesn’t want to speculate because “things happen”, but said the children’s mothers were very involved.
“I don’t know what happened but these parents were different from the others because they were present in their children’s lives.”
Mokhethi says she has more knowledge on Nonhlanhla’s mother because she taught her daughter. She recalls a time when the seven-year-old came to class without doing her homework.
“Nonhlanhla came to class without doing her assignment and her mom accompanied her to explain that she tried to help her daughter but they both didn’t understand the instructions so I mustn’t shout at her [Nonhlanhla] because they tried.”
Mokhethi also recalled another time when she called the parents of all 53 of pupils to come to the school for a meeting on their children’s progress and only four attended.
“Nonhlanhla’s mother was one of the four to come and she arrived first and was interested in her child’s learning,” says Mokhethi.
“I just want to say to the community that I, as a teacher, saw all the good that these mothers did. God would punish me if I didn’t tell the truth. They were supportive and loved these children.”
Founder of non-profit organisation (NPO) Ratang Bana, Ingrid Maredi, says her organisation works really closely with Emfundisweni because it is one of the schools with the most challenges in Alexandra.
According to Ratang Bana’s Facebook page, the mission of the organisation is “to add value to children’s lives and help them to reach their goals through empowering them.”
Maredi says the NPO does not rely on the government to try to make changes for children in the community.
“Government doesn’t give me any money but I am able to feed 450 children. I don’t wait for a government. It is our job to unite as a community because it’s not only orphans that need help, children with parents do too,” Maredi said.
“This is an unacceptable death. We must accept it happened but it’s unacceptable,” she emphasised.
Towards the end of the memorial, a group of children from Emfundisweni and their teacher went to the front of the hall and lit candles in memory of their classmates and pupils.
The teacher read out the names of the group of pupils as if taking attendance in class, and each pupil answered “present” until she got to the names of the four being remembered.
Silence and a few murmurs of “absent”.
The pupils blew out the candles and the teacher said: “The lights that were here are no longer. They have been put out.”