Durban - Three years after his son collapsed and died during training for an eThekwini Metro Police job, Newlands East father Craig de Palo is no closer to knowing why he died, or to getting closure on the official investigation into his death.
Every grim memory of his 20-year-old son Cedric’s death came flooding back with the news that eight Road Traffic Inspectorate recruits had died after gruelling pre-job testing in Pietermaritzburg recently.
The recruits collapsed while running in 35°C temperatures and it has been alleged that they did not have access to water or medical attention.
Transport, Community Safety and Liaison MEC Willies’ Mchunu launched an investigation and has submitted a report to Premier Zweli Mkhize.
But the news of their deaths, the public shock expressed by government officials, and the special memorial service in their honour has been too much for De Palo, intensifying his feelings of devastation and disappointment with the way his son’s death was handled.
“I have had endless phone calls from people and I became very emotional, and it came back to us. My wife and I are not racist but we feel that that the treatment these youngsters got was completely different to us. They received a memorial service, but we have not even had an acknowledgement about my son,” De Palo said.
Despite writing registered and regular letters every two months since his son’s death in February 2010 to former eThekwini municipality mayor Obed Mlaba, present mayor James Nxumalo, metro police management and even the office of the city ombudsman, De Palo has had no answers.
He said he received a single phone call and a letter acknowledging his complaint from the ombudsman, yet he remained in the dark. “They have just ignored me,” De Palo said.
However, eThekwini municipality spokesman Thabo Mofokeng said that the city had responded to De Palo in May 2010 and to several letters regarding his son’s estate from the Department of Justice.
His son had been training at Lahee Park in Pinetown as a potential recruit for the 2010 World Cup, when he collapsed and died. De Palo alleged that witnesses told him that his son had been “punished” and was forced to carry a chair while running in 30°C heat.
He said that light-skinned recruits were the targets of “punishment”.
However, Mofokeng denied the allegation of racism.
“I used to pick up my son and his friends, and they would always joke about whose turn it was next. They were made to do push-ups on their elbows and crawl on their knees on the tar,” De Palo said.
The Independent on Saturday published an article in March 2011, highlighting similar allegations by recruits who were there the day De Palo died.
“He died at around 1.30pm and they left the body lying there until I got there at 4pm. I saw the body lying there. It wasn’t quarantined and I walked past, but I didn’t know who it was,” De Palo said.
“They called me inside and said ‘the body lying there is your son’,” De Palo said. He said he met metro police management the following day to be told that he would not be compensated. “That is my son, my flesh and blood, that they are going to throw under the carpet,” De Palo said. “I can’t believe it.”
All he wants to know is: “What is going on with the investigation? I want to see it completed. The autopsy… was never done properly and the results came back with no cause of death,” he said.
According to the death certificate, cause of death remains “under investigation”.
“We’ve heard not a thing and that’s what hurts us. We were told (by a pathologist) that the possible cause of death is cardiac failure as a result of over-exertion,” De Palo said.
He said his son became a breadwinner after he had had to resign from the SA Post Office because of poor health and he had invested his savings in his son’s name.
“We’re still trying to wind up his estate, but we can’t get any money,” De Palo.
He said that the court had repeatedly referred the case back to the police. “We are living poor. We are battling,”
Mofokeng said that all recruits were treated the same, irrespective of colour.
“The college subscribes to the Bill of Rights, as enshrined in the constitution. It is unfortunate that certain people regard training, which is meant to build upper-body strength, as punishment,” Mofokeng said.
“De Palo and the rest of the class were jogging 120m when he dropped to the ground during the second lap. The recruits were not sprinting.
“During tactical survival techniques, recruits are expected to climb walls and lift the body of another person. It is important to build the upper strength of the body considering the weight of weapons, hence the weight of the plastic chair cannot be compared to the weight of the firearm, handcuffs and police radio,” Mofokeng said.
He said that the Department of Health was responsible for removing the body and the SAPS for the investigation.
“Mr De Palo was brought to the office to inform him in a dignified manner,” Mofokeng said. “We have never received the post-mortem results. Such information is usually communicated by the doctor who does the post mortem.”
Mofokeng said all recruits and instructors had attended his funeral. He said the city had lodged a Workmen’s Compensation claim and was awaiting a decision. A cheque for R685.35 due to the estate had been drawn up but not claimed. An SAPS spokesman had not responded to questions at the time of going to print.
Police spokesman Colonel Vincent Mdunge said police had opened an inquest docket. “But on 18 June 2012 a case docket was closed after it was presented several times at Pinetown Magistrates’ Court.”