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CONSTRUCTION SITE DISASTER

Siphesihle Mehlo was a student electrician with ‘big dreams’, says grieving mother after George building collapse

Siphesihle Mehlo was a student electrician with ‘big dreams’, says grieving mother after George building collapse
Siphesihle Mehlo, 21. Her body was retrieved from under the rubble of the collapsed building in George. (Photo: Supplied)

After an agonising week, a distraught family received confirmation on Monday that their beloved Siphesihle Mehlo, a 21-year-old college student, had not made it out alive from the debris in George.

“Don’t worry, Mom. I’m going to achieve great things for you. You have the best daughter in me.”

These conversations echo in Nompucuko Mehlo’s mind whenever she thinks of her daughter, Siphesihle.

“She had big dreams and always shared them with me. She wanted success so much, she also had a bright smile that lit up everyone’s face.”

Siphesihle was among the bodies of 33 workers retrieved from the debris after a multi-storey construction site building collapsed in George last Monday. Rescue workers and other stakeholders have been at the site of the collapsed building for over 211 hours. As of now, 19 individuals are still missing, while 12 are receiving treatment in hospitals.

Read more in Daily Maverick: No one knows how many people were inside collapsed George building – Bheki Cele

The 21-year-old and another student were on the building site to complete their apprenticeships as electricians. Her college, Africa Skills College, had stipulated that students needed to be mentored by qualified artisans in order to graduate.

“Siphesihle always made me happy,” her mother Nompucuko told Daily Maverick. “She was like a friend. The building is a few minutes away from my workplace, we used to take our lunch break around the same time and she would come to eat with me.”

On the fateful day, about an hour before the building collapsed, Siphesihle was with her mother enjoying lunch and conversing.

“She asked me to smile and took pictures of me on the day. I have missing teeth and I always ask her to stop teasing me, but she managed to capture a beautiful picture and put it on her [WhatsApp] status expressing her love for me.”

Immediately after hearing about the building collapse, Siphesihle’s father joined the volunteers as a rescuer, but family members were removed as volunteers by officials.

The family’s hope of finding Siphesihle alive was renewed by the miraculous discovery of Gabriel Guambe, who was found alive under the rubble after 118 hours on Saturday.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Hope is fading’ — families of workers missing after George building collapse voice their fears

But on Monday afternoon, the devastating news came through that the 21-year-old had not made it out alive. “We prayed and hoped for return,” said Gugulethu Khonono, Siphesihle’s uncle.

“The family is devastated as you can imagine. She was just a child with big dreams and now all that is gone.”

Nompucuko described the tragic loss of her second-born child as a deep wound that may never fully heal. “She was a courageous child, and I know she would have wanted me to be strong. I have my moments when I just break down but I have to be strong.  There was a lot I was looking forward to with my child. She enjoyed her apprenticeship at the site and was ready to move to the next level.”

Several investigations are being conducted, including by structural and engineering experts, the SA Police Service and the Departments of Labour and Home Affairs about the possible exploitation of undocumented foreign refugees and the violation of laws and regulations at the site.

Nompucuko expressed her wish for her daughter to receive a dignified burial and added she is reluctant to discuss the investigation into the cause of the building collapse.

“My focus is my daughter,” she said. “I do not have strength for anything else right now. I want a burial that will also make me feel that she is resting peacefully. Maybe after that, I will give thought to other stuff.”

Siphesihle will be buried in George on a date to be determined later by the family.

Contractor questions

Daily Maverick reported on Wednesday that Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure Sihle Zikalala disclosed that the main contractor — Liatel Developments — was not registered with the Construction Industry Development Board.

This was, he said, as a result of a loophole in current legislation affecting only “private sector clients”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: George building consultant previously faced engineering council probe, but evidence insufficient to prove transgression

The Human Rights Commission has expressed concerns about the rights of the affected workers, particularly their right to life, a safe environment and healthcare.

The Commission visited the site on Tuesday and has yet to comment on whether they will launch an investigation.

“Part of the visit is at devising strategies on how to ensure that the workers and the affected community get redress,” the Commission said in a statement. “It is also aimed at devising and adopting strategies that would ensure accountability and prevent such cases in the future.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to visit the site on Thursday. His office said Ramaphosa remains deeply attentive to the rescue and recovery efforts underway and has expressed his deep condolences to the family and friends of the deceased workers. DM

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