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Durban - Two young friends playing after crèche have died after falling into a deep, sewage-filled pit, where their little bodies lay for hours before being found.
Luthando Ndlovu and Luhluthando Masikane, both 4 years old and from near the rural KwaZulu-Natal village of Nqutu, were apparently pushing tyres around the crèche grounds on Monday as they waited for taxis to take them home.
The tragedy has sparked a probe by the provincial Departments of Social Development and Education into the legality and compliance of the Nothisiwe Crèche, which has 113 children and has been operating for 30 years.
The pit is part of the facility’s makeshift sewerage system, and while co-founder Buyisile Mbatha, 72, claimed she did not know it was accessible, she said more attention would now be paid to maintenance issues, including using donated fencing to cordon it off.
The retired teacher claimed she had written “countless times” to the Nqutu Local Municipality asking for a temporary toilet to be provided at her Nqutu crèche, to no avail.
Speaking to the Daily News at the family home in Ndindindi near Nqutu on Wednesday, Luthando’s family said they too had not known about the pit. They said they had found the boys’ bodies after they went looking for Luthando when he failed to arrive home.
“Thankfully we discovered the body of the other kid first. If we had found Luthando first, I believe that boy would have been buried there without anybody knowing. No-one knew he was missing at the time,” said Luthando’s grandfather, Bhekizitha Mncube.
He said he became worried when he saw other children returning from crèche and there was no sign of Luthando.
The boy’s mother phoned a staff member at the crèche who told her she thought he had left with the other children.
Mncube said he then asked local children where Luthando was, and was told he had fallen into a hole they knew as umgodi wenyoka, which loosely translates to “snake pit”.
The family believes staff had come up with the name as a way to keep them clear of the sewage pit.
Mncube said he and a neighbour went to the crèche but found the gates locked.
A cleaner pointed out the pit, where they found a piece of broken zinc sheet, but there was no sign of Luthando.
Uncertain if they were looking in the right area, they fetched one of the children who had seen the boys fall into the hole. When they returned, they explored the pit and made the gruesome discoveries.
Mncube said even an adult could have succumbed in the pit, which was so deep a 5m ladder could not reach the bottom. He said the pit was filled with sewage water.
Police, firefighters and municipal emergency workers assisted in the recovery of the bodies.
“It’s really painful. I am so deeply hurt, I have to go to Home Affairs tomorrow and fetch his death certificate,” Mncube said.
“I will miss my Skhothane (his nickname); he brought a lot of joy to us.” Said Mncube: “At the end of the day, somebody must account for what has happened here.”
Luhluthando’s mother, Sizakele, was too traumatised to speak on Wednesday.
The boy’s grandmother, Lungile Mabaso, said they were finding it hard to come to terms with the tragedy.
Mabaso said they had initially thought Luhluthando was playing at a neighbour’s house. “We then called his taxi driver to find out where Luhle was and he said he thought Luhle was part of the group that he had dropped off. He hadn’t noticed he had left Luhle at school,” she said.
“We were later contacted by his teacher at around 5pm, informing us that something had happened to Luhle and we needed to rush to the school.”
The grandmother said the scene that greeted them at the crèche was horrific.
“Two small bodies were placed next to the hole, the community and teachers were standing around them. The police uncovered one of the bodies and we identified Luhle,” she said.
Mabaso questioned why measures had not been taken to prevent such a tragedy.
“The school hasn’t even come to explain what happened,” she said.
Mbatha, the crèche’s co-founder, blamed taxi drivers for sometimes arriving late to pick up the children. However, the parents who spoke to the Daily News disputed this.
Mbatha said her 113 charges were watched closely during breaks by the teachers and a groundsman, but this was not the case after closing time.
She had been running the crèche for 30 years, and this was the first such tragedy.
Social workers were sent to the crèche to counsel the children and affected families.
The spokesman for the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education, Muzi Mahlambi, said a team had been dispatched to investigate the death of the two boys.
Police have opened an inquest docket.