Durban - The 24-year-old driver of a bakkie that plunged into a Midlands sludge dam, killing five schoolchildren and injuring 25 others, was expected to appear in court on Wednesday on charges of murder, attempted murder, reckless and negligent driving, overloading and illegal loading of children in a delivery van.
He was unscathed. It has been alleged the vehicle’s brakes failed.
KwaZulu-Natal Department of Transport spokesman, Nathi Sukazi, said charging to take children to school in the back of a bakkie was strictly illegal.
Police spokesman, Colonel Jay Naicker, said the bakkie would be sent for testing and investigators would reconstruct the accident.
He said it appeared the driver had been driving at high speed.
The children were paying R120 a month for this transport from Riet-vlei to their schools.
The owner of the bakkie, Victoria Shelembe, lost her son, Phumlani, 17, in the crash. Four of her other children are in hospital.
Shelembe said the vehicle had left her home at 6.30am to pick up the children from the farms. They were to be taken to Senzokuhle Combined School and Tauricus Primary and High School in Mooi River, a 30-minute journey.
She said the driver was a relative.
Tragedy struck at 7am on Monday, when the driver lost control of the vehicle on the D532 road, near Elsmore Farm, in Rietvlei.
According to witnesses, the bakkie first hit a cow before veering off the gravel road.
They said the vehicle then ploughed through a wire fence and was airborne for many metres before plunging into the sludge dam.
The children, seated under a canopy in the back of the bakkie, were flung out.
The canopy did not have a door.
Les Francis, who owns the Bloemendaal Farm 200m away from the scene, was one of the first at the site.
“There were a lot of kids screaming and trying to get out of the pit as the rear end of the bakkie sank into the sludge,” he said.
He said the older children were trying desperately to help the little ones.
Francis said one of his workers fetched a strap and tied it around a boy’s waist to secure him. He then tried to pull some of the children out of the sludge.
“I helped some of the survivors out of their wet clothing and offered them blankets and jackets to keep warm. It was freezing and they had to wait almost an hour for paramedics to arrive.”
Thomas Masondo, who lives on the farm where the crash occurred, said he was letting the goats out to graze at about 7am when he heard a loud noise. This, he said, was followed by screams and a bang.
“I ran to where the noise came from and saw the children in the sludge. The farm workers tried to pull them out.”
Sthabiso Khanyile, 12, was seriously injured while his sister, Snenhlanhla, 12, sustained minor injuries. Their sister, Amanda, was killed.
Sthabiso was taken to a hospital in Pietermaritzburg where he was found to have sustained back injuries and a broken arm.
His father, Sfiso, said Amanda’s body had been recovered after eight hours. He said neighbouring farmers had volunteered their graders, caterpillars and tractors to assist in the rescue.
Rescuers carefully wrapped Amanda’s tiny body in white plastic while it was under the sludge, ensuring it was not exposed to onlookers.
Sfiso was allowed to identify her. He was shaken but relieved her body had been recovered.
The youngest person killed was 7-year-old Lindokuhle Mayekiso, a grade 1 pupil.
His mother, Happiness Shezi, said his name meant “await a good thing”. She had waited many years to conceive a son after giving birth to three daughters.
“He was our good thing because we prayed for him for years. We also expected him to achieve good things. But now his life has been cut off,” she sobbed.
Her daughters, Ntombizodwa, 12, Nosindiso, 17 and Nonkululeko, 14, survived.
Shezi said she was relieved her daughters were fine, but said the girls were traumatised by their brother’s death.
Jabulile Phungula is mourning the death of her daughter, Nokwazi. Her son, Senzo, escaped the tragedy: he was at home because he had chicken pox.
Nokwazi had only started taking the bakkie last Monday. Her mother did not want her to walk to school in winter.
KwaZulu-Natal Department of Transport spokesman, Nathi Sukazi, said: “Charging to take children to school in the back of a bakkie is strictly illegal.”
But policing this practice was difficult, he said.
KZN’s Transport head, Sbusiso Gumbi, who was at the scene, said the bakkie had been overloaded.
He said the driver would have needed a special permit and insurance to transport passengers.
Local councillor, Bhekumuzi Mhlanzi, said they had been in talks with the Department of Education for a bus to transport pupils to school.
Gumbi said 290 schools in the province benefited from the provision of subsidised scholar transport, including some in the Mooi River and Rietvlei area.
However, Mhlanzi said the bus only travelled along the main tarred road, leaving children who lived on remote farms, like those along D532, to walk or ride in bakkies.