South Africa

Protea West’s tragedy: When a nine-year-old dies

By Bheki C. Simelane 23 January 2014

As service delivery protests continue to grip South Africa, Tuesday night saw yet another death resulting from a combination of poor service delivery and great irresponsibility. A nine year-old learner died after she was electrocuted by an illegally connected bare wire. Young Zanele Mdaka passed away just moments after she had been brought into the Chiawelo community health centre in Soweto. By BHEKI SIMELANE.

In early August last year, the community of Protea South took to the streets in protest against what they called a woefully poor delivery of services. Residents at the time complained about the closure of their clinic and general provision of basic services. This after a decision was taken to close down the clinic after it was discovered that some residents had illegally connected electricity from the main supply to the local clinic. The illegal connection to the clinic caused regular power cuts and made it practically impossible for staff to effectively perform their duties; most of the machines at the clinic run on electricity.

The community was assured by authorities that they would fix the electricity issues and look into the other grievances. But five months after the protests very little, if anything at all, has been done to fix the problem. All that has happened in the five months is that some shacks have been relocated to other parts of the area, supposedly to align them in readiness for an electricity installation by Eskom. This exercise was suspended for the December holidays and nothing has happened since the beginning of the year.

Zanele Mdaka (9) returned from Protea South Primary on a soaking wet afternoon after heavy rains in Soweto on Tuesday. On arrival at her family shack, the young girl told her mother she was going to visit her father, who stays about 500 metres away from the family home. Young Zanele was in the company of a friend, her father’s neighbour. She and the other girl were not wearing shoes when they left, despite the fact that this was unsafe, as a network of illegally connected wires posed a great danger underground under wet conditions. Most boys and girls their age cover the township barefoot on a daily basis.

Several paths that lead into and out of the shacks are used by the community in the absence of proper streets. It was on one of these paths that the little girl and her friend came across a bare wire. Suspecting that the wire could be containing live electricity, Zanele’s friend screamed at her not to touch it. But it was too late. Zanele bent over to move the bare wire from across the path so the girls could pass. The screams of other people who saw the girls and who knew that the wire was live came seconds too late as Zanele’s hands had clutched on the wire.

Zanele’s mother Mavis Mdaka related the story of the young girl from a mattress where she sat with other mourners who had come to comfort her and had been with her on the Tuesday night when the girl passed away. “I’m terribly saddened by what happened to my little girl. I seriously never thought there would be so much talk around her during this time, especially talk suggesting that she had died and that I would never see her again. I really never saw this coming,” she said. “As a result of the poor delivery of services to this area my daughter had to wait in pain for three hours for the ambulance to arrive. I was called by another child who said people in the street had sent her to fetch me so I could see my daughter,” she added.

On arrival at the scene Mdaka said she was devastated to see her little girl in that condition. “When I got to the scene I realised that her stomach was rising and she made small movements which suggested that she was still alive, but the ambulance was still nowhere to be seen.”

It was Zanele’s older sister Noluvo Mdaka (15) who ran around looking for a car that could be hired to take her sister to the clinic. A neighbour from the smarter side of Protea South – with its beautiful houses – refused to take the girl to the clinic, claiming that a person who had been electrocuted would leave an unpleasant smell in his car. So he left the child sprawled on the side of the path. Eventually she was driven to the clinic by a passerby who took her for R50; the only money Zanele’s father had.

On arrival at the Chiawelo community clinic, the family was sent from point A to point B as arrangements were being made to take the girl to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. Mdaka’s pain was aggravated by an elderly cleaner at the Chiawelo clinic, who remarked that she was tired of all the deaths, referring to Mdaka’s daughter. Shortly before the girl was transferred to Baragwanath, Mdaka said that she noticed Zanele emitted bubbles from the nose and blood oozed from one of her nostrils. At this point that she realised her little girl had left them; she was dead.

“I swear to you, my child, that the ambulance people are not the only people who were nasty to us; the staff that work night shift at the Chiawelo clinic were equally heartless,” she said. Mdaka asks what sin the community of Protea South committed against the ambulance department; why do they never want to help? she asks. “Remember Sarah, the woman who was refused service by four ambulance staffers who said she was too dirty?”

Yes, I remember Sarah well, I thought.

Mdaka says she and her husband are both unemployed, so it was difficult for them to set the date for the funeral as they had no money to bury their daughter. She said they would wait for a community meeting that had been called for five p.m on Wednesday to look into ways of raising funds so that their daughter could be laid to rest. The meeting would look at possible solutions to the illegal use of electricity so as to avert incidents of this nature in future. (At the time of writing, we were informed that the five p.m meeting has resolved that donations should be made for Zanele’s burial.)

This tragedy is just one of many where parents have had to lose their children as a result of irresponsible behaviour on the part of some community members and government officials – who continue to fail powerless members of the community. Mdaka said an attempt to get hold of the local ANC councillor Mapule Khumalo proved futile as her phone was constantly on voicemail. She said Democratic Alliance PR councillor Popi Mnisi has always been helpful as she was the one who tried to assist the family. She accompanied the family to the police station then to Protea Primary and to negotiations with funeral undertakers. Local funeral undertakers Mjiza Funerals donated a coffin to the family and gave them a R2000 discount but even then the family was still not sure how they would bury Zanele as they did not even have the R4000 to cater for the funeral. She said they would have to wait and see how much the community raises and that they were very grateful to Mjiza Funeral undertakers for the generous offers.

Zanele was the last born in a family of five. Older sister Noluvo Mdaka was in tears as we got closer to the scene of her sister’s accident. She described her as a young girl who loved and enjoyed the company of other kids. “She was a lovely person, I will always miss my sister,” Noluvuyo said.

Neighbours who came to comfort the family lamented the fact that the community of Protea South and other poor communities were given very little respect by government officials and the ambulance department, who all preferred to attend to well-off communities. One mourner, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the community should not be surprised as paramedics had previously made it clear that they never attended to poor communities with untarred streets that would damage their ambulances and cars.

Local ANC councillor Mapule Khumalo’s phone was continuously on voicemail. Democratic Alliance PR councillor Popi Mnisi said what was happening to the children and community of Protea South was very painful. She said it was wrong to make illegal connections despite the fact that many families did not have electricity. Eskom also knows about the problem and this was not the first time a life had been lost, Mnisi claimed.

Mnisi, however, said she blamed the government. “How do you try to fix this? Some people have electricity, but some in the very same area do not. Why is this, and how do you tell those that steal electricity that it is wrong to do so? How many more people should die before these wrongs are corrected?” DM

Photo: Protea South (Greg Nicolson)



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