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On Friday, February 22, Mvumeni Isaiah Ndlovu felt like a lucky man because his girlfriend of six months, Nonsikelelo Veronica Tenza, had come to visit from Mariannhill for the weekend.
To celebrate, the pair visited friends near the Blue Heights shopping centre in Westville. As usual, they were on foot, and a little after 8.30pm they decided to return to Ndlovu’s home at 88A Rodger Sishi (Blair Atholl) Road.
“It was a nice night, quite warm, and we were laughing and chatting as we walked,” he said. “Most of the street is very safe, but just after the river, on the side where we were walking, it is dark because there are no street lights.
“Veronica said she needed to relieve herself, and she went behind the thick trees next to the river, where there is a big abandoned house. Because the house is empty, it was in darkness.
“I waited for more than five minutes, but she did not come back. I called her name over and over. Nothing.”
Feeling his way forward in the dark, Ndlovu then made the horrific discovery.
“I felt her feet, but they were straight up in the air. Veronica’s head and body were in a hole. I tried to pull her out, but she was too heavy for me. She was not moving at all.”
Weeping and disorientated, Ndlovu sagged on to the overgrown grass alongside the manhole. A passing motorist alerted the Westville SAPS and they were at the scene within minutes.
Tenza’s body was taken to the mortuary and Ndlovu was kept at the station overnight and released after questioning the next morning.
He is inconsolable at the loss of his partner, and battles to fathom how the accident could have happened in a generally well-maintained neighbourhood.
“Veronica was just such a special friend. She was a woman who worked hard and was always there for me,” he said.
Memories of the evening had kept him from sleeping or eating and he wanted to know from the eThekwini Council “why she had to die from something like this - a hole that was in a place where no one could see it.”
Although Ndlovu told the Sunday Tribune that police had escorted him to the home of Tenza’s family early last Saturday morning to inform them of her death, police spokesmen insisted until Friday that the family had not been notified, and they could therefore not release any details.
Only after The Sunday Tribune provided them with the contact details and numbers of Tenza’s eldest son, David Ramatlateng, 30, of Claremont, did they relent. However, information was still scant. The post-mortem results indicating the nature of Tenza’s injuries have not yet been made public.
Shan Govender, acting deputy head: roads and stormwater maintenance, stressed that “the circumstances surrounding the accident are unclear and as yet unconfirmed by the SAPS or any other investigative body”.
Govender said of the roughly 360 000 manholes in eThekwini, about 200 000 within the road reserve area belonged to external service providers, among them Neotel, Telkom, Dark Fibre Africa, Link Africa, Vodacom and MTN.
Govender said missing or damaged manhole covers were generally replaced within 24 hours of being reported.
Asked why the Rodger Sishi manhole had been without a cover for so long, he said: “It was part of the subsoil drainage in the area, was within the grass verge and obscured by tall growth. This department was unaware of the missing cover and it is not known how long the situation persisted.”
When The Sunday Tribune visited the scene of Tenza’s death on Tuesday morning, the manhole was hard to find among overgrown grass. It was still open, and the bottom was littered with discarded cold drink bottles, old shoes and food wrappers.
Nearby, a swathe of red and white plastic tape had been tossed aside. It appeared to have been tied to pieces of bamboo.
A schoolgirl who lives within metres of the scene said she had noticed the hole some days before, and that there was nothing to warn the public of the danger.
“On Saturday morning, after the woman died, I saw that someone had put up tape around the hole, but then later the tape disappeared,” said the girl, whose parents did not want her named.
When the Sunday Tribune visited the site a second time, a municipal truck was at the site and officials were examining the hole. By Wednesday, a huge concrete slab had been laid. This was removed on Thursday and a smaller manhole cover fitted.
The thick grass and undergrowth had been cut short and an open drainage canal next to the abandoned house on the river had been cleared of debris. The corner was still without street lights, in contrast to the rest of the road.
At the time of going to press Tenza’s family had not been contacted by municipal representatives regarding her death.
The Sunday Tribune accompanied Tenza’s son, Ramatlateng, to the scene. Battling to contain his grief, he knelt in prayer next to the repaired manhole.
“Her untimely death has been a great shock to us. It’s really hard to accept, considering the bizarre circumstances. We need answers. How did she fall into the hole? Why was it not covered?” he queried.
Yesterday the family conducted a traditional prayer ritual at the site, before escorting Tenza’s spirit to her mother’s home. - Sunday Tribune