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Court orders compensation of R375,000 to families of learners who drowned on school outing

Court orders compensation of R375,000 to families of learners who drowned on school outing
(Illustration: Lisa Nelson)

Judge finds ‘insufficient steps were taken to safeguard the learners’, who drowned during a school excursion six years ago.

The Mahikeng High Court in North West has ordered the education MEC to pay R375,000 to each of the families of three learners who drowned while on an official school excursion six years ago.

The ruling, handed down on 27 September, came less than a week after yet another incident where a learner drowned in the swimming pool at a hotel where he was attending a seminar with other learners.

In March 2016, three learners drowned during an official excursion organised by Rustenburg Technical College to a local dam. Evidence before Judge Andre Petersen was that two learners had died after a canoe they were paddling capsized. How the third learner drowned was still “shrouded in uncertainty”, the judge said. This is because the learner had not been in the canoe with the other two but his body was discovered later by police sniffer dogs.

The court action against the MEC was initiated by the guardians and parents of the learners.

The MEC specifically disputed any negligence on the part of the teacher or any causal connection between the death of the learners and the steps taken by her to ensure their safety. The dam where the learners drowned is owned by the family of a teacher, Linda Conradie.

Conradie had told the court that she took the group on a walkabout on the farm and as they passed the dam some had “unrelentingly begged” her to allow them to swim and use the canoes. Conradie said no water activities had been planned.

She said she did not know many of them and inquired about their ability to swim. Only five or six said they could. Those who could not were instructed to remain close to her.

“She believed herself to be a good swimmer and lifeguard and was familiar with the dam, having allowed her own children to swim in it. She acceded to their requests,” Judge Petersen said.

All had gone well. Conradie decided to “call it a day” when some of the learners asked if they could do one last round in the canoe. She then saw it capsize and noticed that when the boys surfaced, one appeared anxious and scared. Another was clutching on to the canoe. She realised they needed help and she swam out to them.

Conradie testified that the water level was up to her nose when she reached them. Both learners were distressed. She took one of their hands and the other hung around her neck, which caused her to sink.

She realised she was at risk of drowning with them so she called out to the learners who were standing on the dam wall to find a stick and form a human chain to assist her. By then, some had run off to call for help from her husband and son.

When the learners were eventually pulled out of the water, they had died.

“She could not explain how the other boy drowned, save for flashbacks where she appears to see him at the front of the human chain … his body was only retrieved some time later after being found by police dogs,” the judge said.

“A fact which stands out is that the trip had not envisaged any water-related activities and parental consent had not been given,” said Judge Petersen.

“Conradie should have been acutely aware of this — despite the unrelenting begging by the learners to swim. She was in the position of a careful mother and should have refused.”

While she took steps to establish which learners could swim, this “did not suffice in the circumstances which prevailed at the spur of the moment”, the judge said.

The depth of the dam was unknown and no life jackets were available. “With the number of learners who could not swim, that she was the only teacher or adult undoubtedly fell shy of ensuring reasonable supervision to prevent harm, which should have been foreseen or anticipated.

“This on its own is a glaring indication that insufficient steps were taken to safeguard the learners.”

Judge Petersen said Conradie’s own version overwhelmingly proved she was negligent and the learners’ guardians and parents — who were in a situation similar to the parents of Michael Komape (who drowned in a pit latrine toilet at his school) — were entitled to general damages for emotional shock.

“Their deaths undoubtedly still beg more questions than answers. It has been more than 6½ years with no closure for them.”

The judge noted that the department had paid each family R50,000 towards the funeral costs at the time, and awarded R375,000 to each for general damages. He ordered the MEC to pay the costs of the court action. DM

First published by GroundUp.

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