A bloated face and a pale skin blistered from exposure to the sun confronted Bonolo Malamela’s family when they were called to identify the body of the 9-year-old boy. He was swept into the Moretele River with two friends in Mamelodi East during last Monday’s heavy rains.
His uncle Godfrey Malamela, the boy’s older brother and other relatives choked back tears as they watched the body being hauled up from among thick reeds and taken to a waiting pathology services van at about noon on Sunday.
A search team, made up of residents, police and a reinforced search-and-rescue team from the City of Tshwane had found the body lying among thick foliage an hour earlier.
The other two boys were found on Saturday.
“We are so relieved to have the body back. It does not make the pain of losing him any better, but it at least means we will be able to bid him goodbye,” the uncle said.
He described his appearance as “painful to see”, and said the mother might not be able to see him soon, because she had fainted when she heard the body had been found.
Bonolo, one of five siblings, was found 40m further along the river from the body of Neo Setlhabane, 10, who was found on Saturday.
Gomolemo Mangena, also 10, was found after 9am on Sunday by the team that had been searching since Tuesday morning. They found Neo’s body five hours later.
The three boys disappeared into the raging waters as they played near concrete storm water pipes on Monday afternoon.
A frantic search, led by residents, began that very evening.
On Tuesday morning, Mamelodi police dispatched a helicopter, a dog unit, and a search and rescue team, while the council sent divers and search and rescue experts.
Searching for them was hampered by continuous rain throughout the week. The river swelled, making it impossible for divers to get into the water.
Strong currents and deep water, thick shrubbery and reeds also made it difficult to search along the river banks.
However, residents were up early every day, looking for the trio.
Police spokesman Captain Johannes Maheso said on Sunday the bodies were found half-decomposed.
“The first boy was found about 700m away from the spot at which they disappeared, while the second was found at least 70m away from the first.”
On Sunday, Gomolemo’s mother, Susan Mangena, broke down as she described the pain of losing her oldest child. There was a sense of relief at him being found, she said, but the pain was just as bad.
“I have not been able to see his body, the thought of him being lifeless is too painful,” said Mangena.
“I will go and see my little boy at the mortuary sometime this week, although I have no idea where the strength for that will come from.”
Rebecca Setlhabane, Neo’s aunt, said her family’s biggest fear had been to never get his body back.
“The thought of him being eaten by wild animals or river creatures haunted us. At least we will find closure in burying him,” she said.
Setlhabane has no children of her own, and had been raising and educating her sister’s son.
On Sunday, she said the community rallying around all the families, some searching and others offering constant support, were her heroes.
Maheso also praised residents for tirelessly searching alongside professional teams. “They’ve been the perfect example of community spirit, and we thank them for that.”
An inquest had been registered to determine the exact cause of death.