Maverick Citizen


#Justice4Michael – Michael Komape. Never forget.

#Justice4Michael – Michael Komape. Never forget.
Rosina Komape flanked by her two eldest children, Lucas and Lydia. Image: Thom Pierce

On 20 January 2014 Michael Komape drowned in the most undignified way – in a pit toilet at his school in Chebeng Village in Polokwane. He was five years old. For five long years his family have been seeking justice for the tragic and horrific death of their son. Today, the family will take another step down the long and winding road towards some form of justice when their appeal will be heard by the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein.

Michael Komape’s tragic story and the search for justice has been kept alive for the past five years by a handful of activists and organisations. Two years ago Mark Heywood wrote an angry, but heartfelt piece about the death of Michael, some of which is repeated in this article. While at SECTION27 Nomatter Ndebele was a key contact for the family as they navigated the courts. Nomatter and photojournalist Thom Pierce recently travelled to Limpopo to talk to the family on the eve of their next step.

Twenty kilometres outside Polokwane is a small village called Chebeng. It’s a drab and dreary place, reminiscent of one of the rural dumping grounds where the old South African apartheid state put victims of their forced removals. There are few trees, the streets are not tarred, outside pit toilets seem the norm and there is little of the infrastructure one normally sees in modern “human settlements”. Of course, there are plenty of shebeens and spaza shops. And plenty of young people who, numb in unemployment, litter Chebeng’s streets during daytime, lethargic and apparently aimless.

Chebeng Village is where the Komape family live. They are a typical family; mother, father and six children.

James and Rosina Komape were born in 1967 and 1972 respectively, right in the middle of the apartheid years.

The arrival of James and Rosina’s first children coincided with the end of apartheid. Lydia, their first daughter was born in 1990, the same year Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Lucas, their first son, came in 1994, the year South Africa became free via the ballot box.

In more than one way 1994 was the year the Komape’s dreams came true. It was the year all our dreams came true.

Today, James and Rosina are unemployed, penniless, adrift. One of the few things nobody can take away from them is their dignity.

There are now other siblings: the twins, another brother and a beautiful smiling nearly-six-year-old daughter with eyes as big and bright as moons.

In 2009 James and Rosina had another son. Photos show he had the same eyes as his little sister. According to James, Michael, “loved to read books” and was smiley-serious. James remembers that Michael didn’t blame him on the days when James had no money to give him for school.

Michael Komape was a child born free in our free South Africa, a child with the opportunity denied to his father, a child for whom, our Constitution says, the government must always “act in his best interests”.

Michael might have grown up to be a scientist or pilot, an artist or a poet, a beneficiary of a free South Africa where you could live your dreams. Instead, Michael was a born-free who became a household name not because of the manner of his life but because of the manner of his death.

On 20 January 2014 Michael died in a toilet. No, let’s put that another way, Michael drowned in a toilet.

Michael suffocated on other children’s shit and piss. He swallowed it. He floundered about in it while he struggled to get a grip on it to stop from drowning. Shit is slippery.

When his little arms tired of trying to keep his head above the surface, by the time his physical struggle was over, it took him another three minutes to asphyxiate.

When his body was removed from the toilet five hours later, his stomach was full of undigested shit.

Luckily”, as Michael died one hand stayed above the surface of the shit, to be spotted by Rosina several hours later. Failing that, Michael’s body might still be lost, buried in the shit, to this day. Nobody would have known where he went.

But why does seeking justice for Michael’s death matter?

To most people, our government particularly, Michael was a nobody, son of other nobodies in a nowhere village. As if in proof of this, no apology for his death was offered to his parents. As James said: “We gave them our son in the morning and they gave us back a corpse in the afternoon.” No explanation was proffered as to why he died.

His death certificate says “under investigation” as cause of death, but no investigation took place into his death.

The Department of Basic Education offered him a pauper’s burial. But Rosina didn’t buy it. Michael’s last scraps of dignity were not for surrender.

To the police, it seems he was a nobody-boy going nowhere.

Why investigate nobody-deaths? Why waste tax-payers’ money on nothing?

Of course, a few politicians and officials showed up at his funeral, as officials are wont to do when the cameras are present. They got wind there would be a gathering big enough to show their faces at – even if it was for a dead nobody. They made sure they were spotted by the press. They needed to be seen to be “for the people”. So, they dropped a couple of crocodile tears. Then they went home to their children and got on with their Sunday afternoons.

They are lucky. They cashed in on their dream by promising to fulfil other people’s dreams. And then by breaking their promise.

The MEC at the time told the media she wasn’t God. And, she fumed, she definitely wasn’t MEC of toilets. Michael is dead. But now Dikeledi Magadzi is a big Deputy Minister of Transport in the big Parliament in Cape Town. Her children are well fed. They have porcelain toilets that you can drink out of. Even cats can’t drown in their toilets.

The Komapes didn’t get on with their lives. They grieved for their smiley-serious son.

They couldn’t get over the fact that he had died in a toilet. “Dying in shit is not normal,” cried Rosina. “It’s disgusting,” said Lydia. It’s a death worse than death. It’s a dirty, humiliating, debilitating death.”

The government lawyer who they told that to in court couldn’t understand it. Death is death he insinuated, and this was just an accident.

Rosina, James, Lucas and Lydia couldn’t get over their sense of betrayal. They don’t have big English words for their feelings – but they felt a fit of guttural anger and confusion. Why did nobody from the government come to talk to them, to apologise, to make simple amends, to show humanity and empathy?

When they said that to the government lawyer in court he couldn’t understand it. He thought it was good enough that the government had offered them counselling in a far-away hospital, a few food parcels, which Rosina said had been consumed by the gravediggers, and a pauper’s burial.

They should be grateful, “they were nobodies” he seemed to think.

Get over it.”

Today, the Komapes take another step, they are not over it.

Nomatter Ndebele and Thom Pierce travelled to Chebeng Village on the eve of the case to spend time with the Komape family. They spoke to Michael’s mother Rosina and his older siblings Lydia and Lucas.

Rosina Komape v Minister of Basic Education and Others will be heard by the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein. SECTION27 will be representing the family of Michael in their efforts to seek justice. Michael fell into a pit toilet at Mahlodumela Primary School in the Limpopo Province and tragically drowned in human excrement.

On 23 April 2018, Judge J Muller dismissed the family’s claims; the first was a delictual claim for damages for emotional trauma, the second was a claim for grief suffered, alternatively constitutional damages and the third related to future medical expenses for the family, this was partially granted. SECTION27 is appealing all the dismissed damages claims as well as the High Court’s refusal to grant a declaratory order declaring that their rights had been violated. The arguments to be made in the SCA are available here.

Lydia and Lucas penned (and read) separate pieces on their heartbreak and feelings about the death of their young brother as well as the drawn-out legal process. They shared their thoughts in their home language SePedi.

Lydia Remembers Michael

Michael Komape’s sister Lydia has often acted as the brave spokesperson for the Komape family and has been a constant presence in court. Photo: Thom Pierce

My name is Lydia Mokibelo Komape and I am James’ and Rosina’s first child. I am 29 years old. I live in Moletjie, Chebeng. I have five brothers and the last one is the late Michael Komape.

Michael passed away on 20 January 2014.

Michael was five years old. He was a smart child who loved reading and writing, he was a quiet child who loved people and he was a happy child. He had his own way of making the people around him smile. On 20 January 2014 he went to school and never came back.

Lydia Komape shared her memories of Michael in her own words in her mother tongue sePedi.


Lydia Komape shared her memories of Michael in her own words in her mother tongue sePedi.

In 2014 on the 20th day of January Michael went to school, where he later passed on. He was in grade R and he was the first child at his school, Mahlodumela primary to die.

My mother got a phone call from the school teachers informing her that Michael isn’t at school.

My mother went to the school to find out what was happening, when she got there she found out that Michael had passed away.

Going to court has been hard and tiring. I was very hurt when the court made its last judgment. I feel like the courts have failed us.

In this audio recording Lydia remembers Michael and how much she misses her little brother

I miss his joyful face.

I want this case to end so we can move on with our lives.

Lucas remembers Michael

Lucas was Michael’s older brother and had to be held back from the collapsed pit toilet when he realised his sibling was the one who had died. Photo: Thom Pierce

My name is Lucas Khomotsho Komape. I am 25 years old. I live in Chebeng, I am James and Rosina Komape’s second child. I have one sister and four brothers, the fifth one is the late Michael Komape.

Michael Komape passed on 20 January 2014. Michael was a smart child. When he died he was 5 years old and in his first year at the school, Mahlodumela. Michael spent a lot of time focused on his books and playing.

Lucas Komape shared his memories of Michael in his own words in his mother tongue sePedi.

Lucas Komape shared his memories of Michael in his own words in his mother tongue sePedi.

On 20 January 2014 Michael Komape went to school and didn’t come back because he didn’t have access to safe sanitation.

The day Michael died I was coming back from school when I saw a group of people at Mahlodumela primary school, I never imagined that something could have happened to my brother. When I arrived at the school I heard someone call my name, as I got closer I saw my mother crying and that’s when I ran towards her and asked her what had happened, then they told me that Michael fell into the pit toilet. I started crying, I tried to get closer to my brother but the police prevented me from doing so.

Lucas remembers his little brother Michael in this recording and shares his memory from the day Michael died.

I am surprised by how the courts have handled the matter. Despite the fact that the Department of Basic Education admitted that they are at fault, they refuse to give us the amount of money we’ve requested. The courts are also refusing to give us the relief that we have requested. That is the reason why we have continued with the court matter.

I would be happy if the courts agreed to give what my family has asked for. DM


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