South Africa

MUNICIPAL DEATH TRAPS

Body of Khayalethu Magadla found three weeks after six-year-old becomes latest casualty of country’s uncovered manholes

Body of Khayalethu Magadla found three weeks after six-year-old becomes latest casualty of country’s uncovered manholes
Khayalethu Magadla disappeared into an open manhole while playing with friends in the nearby park in Dlamini, Soweto, on 12 June 2022. (Photo: Supplied)

Twenty days after Khayalethu Magadla fell down an open manhole in Soweto, his body has been found, bringing some closure to his father Kholekile Magadla. Sadly, Khayalethu’s fate was not an isolated incident.

“The last time I saw him he had come to greet me, happy as always. I hugged him and gave him R1 after which he went out to play with his friends at their usual spot in the park,” recalled Kholekile Magadla on his last moments with his son Khayalethu.

Khayalethu Magadla disappeared into an open manhole while playing with friends in the park in Dlamini, Soweto on 12 June. At the time, he was just five years old. On 20 June, the Grade R pupil at Emadlelweni Primary School who was described by his parents as bubbly, would have turned six.

Despite extensive search and rescue efforts by Joburg Emergency Management Services (JEMS) it would take three weeks before Khayalethu’s body was found by Joburg Water and JEMS personnel on Saturday 2 July.

After deploying robotic camera technology in three particular individual pipelines before the outfall at the Olifantsvlei wastewater treatment plant in search of the child, a physical search was conducted, Joburg Water’s Nondumiso Mabuza said.

MMC for Public Safety in the City of Joburg David Tembe said more than 30 manholes in the area were searched for 20 days to find the boy. 

A devastated Kholekile Magadla, father of six-year-old Khayalethu Magadla. (Photo Denvor de Wee)

Kholekile Magadla, the father of six-year-old Khayalethu Magadla, from Dlamini, Soweto, South Africa. (Photo Denvor de Wee)

Following the discovery, Khayalethu’s devastated father Magadla said that the situation was sad but he is grateful now that the long search is over and he can put his son to rest. 

“The discovery of our son’s body brings the longed-for closure and relief to the family. Not knowing where he was [has been] slowly but surely killing us… Everything since that day has been a nightmare of horror and despair for the family. Losing a son felt like I was losing myself… Our life has been stagnant, we couldn’t sleep or be too comfortable. We often wondered if our son was warm or cold or hungry or in immense pain. Every day we hoped and prayed his body is recovered.”

The details as to how Khayalethu fell into the manhole remain sketchy. 

“All we know is he was playing in the park and fell into the hole around 2pm according to friends who were with him on the day. We were only made aware of the details that he had fallen into the manhole a day after the incident after opening a missing person case at Moroka Police station when he didn’t come home on 12 June by 5pm,” Magadla said.

He blames the negligence of the government and poor infrastructure maintenance for his son’s disappearance. He said the manhole where Khayalethu was last seen was big enough to fit an adult body and is one of two in the area that had been without lids for more than two years. It was reported but nothing was done.

While that manhole has since been closed it is by no means the only one.

The covered manhole in Dlamini, Soweto, where Khayalethu Magadla was last seen – one of two in the area that have been without lids for more than two years. (Photo: Supplied)

Open manholes a deadly menace in South Africa

Joburg Water’s Mabuza confirmed to Daily Maverick that there are at least 1.3 million manholes along the Johannesburg network.

“The entity receives about 2,400 queries of missing manhole covers annually and 98% of these are attended to within 24 hours.”

Mabuza said the costs of covering manholes vary from R1,000 to R10,000 and takes between one to two days.

While the total number of open manholes and incidents of children or adults being harmed by open manholes in the country annually is unknown, Khayalethu’s incident is not unique. He joins a string of young children and adults who have fallen victim to uncovered manholes.

Other incidents include:

  • In March 2022, a 74-year-old motorist had to be rescued from a giant manhole in the road after crashing into it during rainy weather in Greymont, Johannesburg;
  • In the same month, a three-year-old boy was saved after falling into an open manhole in Lower crossroads in the Western Cape;
  • In late 2021, two-year-old Imthande Swartbooi fell into an open manhole in Greenpoint Khayelitsha, Cape Town;
  • In September 2021, six-year-old Khomanani Mawa’s body was retrieved from flowing sewer water in Evaton after he allegedly fell into a sewer manhole while playing at Orange farm;
  • In the same month, the body of a 13-year-old girl was retrieved from a sewer manhole in Sebokeng, Zone 6;
  • In early 2021, former Pietermaritzburg resident, Angelo Van Wyk was left badly injured after falling into a manhole on Elm Road in the village; and
  • In 2020, a four-year-old boy drowned in a sewerage drainage system of a school in Mahikeng, North West.

For Nkosikhona Swaartbooi, a socioeconomic rights-based activist and uncle of Imithande Swartbooi, one case is already one too many.

Swaartboi has pinned the issue of open manholes to a lack of service delivery. 

“The manhole that my nephew fell in had not been covered for weeks even after residents had reported it. The municipality ignored those requests for the manhole to be closed… The manhole cover wasn’t stolen, it just broke into pieces and some of its pieces fell inside – only a half slab was left for several days but also disappeared. 

The material of the manhole wasn’t the metal covers that the City of Cape Town usually uses. When my nephew fell and died, we showed the City officials the remains of the drain lid that were around the manhole,” he said.

Uncovered manholes remain a health and safety hazard to many communities in South Africa

The mother of six-year-old Khayalethu Magadla, who fell into a manhole. (Photo: Denvor de Wee)

The father and mother of six-year-old Khayalethu Magadla. (Photo: Denvor de Wee)

Who is responsible?

Dr Isaac Salagae, a government official at the Gauteng Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, said municipalities bear the responsibility of ensuring open manholes are covered through regular inspections, preventative maintenance and covering of unused and uncovered manholes. 

“Manholes are part of sanitation for municipalities and fall predominantly on the maintenance level. Municipalities budget for that in their operational budget and strategy.” 

Professor David Everatt of the Wits School of Governance says poor infrastructure maintenance is partly to blame for Khayalethu going missing.

“When you say ‘manhole cover’ it includes all sorts of potential hazards that go beyond the traditional, round, formerly solid metal sewer drainage covers. Joburg Water has its own water and stormwater drainage; the sewers have theirs, and every time a pipe bursts and is dug up a new hole emerges that may be closed, and may not. By this stage, most solid steel items have been stolen for scrap – I say ‘most’ without any foundation in fact, but based on the widespread appearance of ill-fitting non-metal covers.”

In dealing with the issue of open manholes Salagae said municipalities rely heavily on communities to report open manholes in their surroundings.  

However, Salagae refused to comment on whether this is effective or not. 

“The province only comes in when the problem is serious and has been elevated. For example Emfuleni municipality – where the municipality couldn’t handle the issue of sewage flowing in the streets the provincial government intervened. At this point regarding the manholes, municipalities haven’t reached out for provincial intervention.”

Everatt has suggested the following measures for the government as a means of avoiding more harm caused by manholes:

  1. Monitor proactively – get out there and check the infrastructure (don’t make it the community’s problem alone, they are allies not substitutes);
  2. Design better – fit sensors to detect when manhole covers are tampered with, arrest and prosecute those who try;
  3. Plan intelligently – why on earth would a manhole ever appear in a children’s playground? Or, why would you build a playground where there is a manhole cover? Children can be guaranteed to find the weak spot in anything, so placing manholes near bored children is potentially fatal;
  4. Deliver developmentally – if the community knows these are assets that are for our good, we’ll protect them, and if we know about their dangers, we’ll educate our children (exactly as my parents did about playing in stormwater drains which are still open, vandalised, and highly dangerous); and
  5. Community participation, understanding and ownership – get that, and you have won. DM
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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    I would have expected the Everatt “suggestions” to be legal requirements so that kids disappearing into manholes didn’t happen and municipal workers and management became criminally liable for blatant neglect of essential maintenance of infrastructure.

  • Madelein Barnard says:

    Thanks for finally addressing the elephant in the room. After countless articles on the little boy’s unnecessary death someone is finally talking about why the manhole was open in the first place. Corruption takes criminal energy, but what gets to me is the is the cost of people not giving a hoot. Not replacing a manhole cover is just pure negligence. It’s not a rich area where the councillor is on speed dial, so let’s just ignore this, who cares, and a beautiful little life is lost.

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