Watching the dog, the child’s grandmother held her breath. She was waiting for a sign of another missing grandchild.
It was a sunny Thursday in Dundee, inland KwaZulu-Natal, this week. Streams leading into the Buffalo River glittered and tinkled. But the small, historic town has become a place of darkness for Rennie Khumalo. The 53-year-old watched police and strangers dig in the river banks.
She knows, in her heart and mind, that 9-year-old Ayabonga Steele is no longer alive, but she needs some closure.
On the evening of January 25, in the midst of torrential rain, Buffalo “Blood” River raged, overflowing its banks. Hailstones smashed through the roof of Khumalo’s home.
“I just heard that sound ‘crrrk!’ and there was no roof any more. The kids and I tried to run to a neighbour’s house for shelter, but the path outside was flooded,” Khumalo recalled.
Only one of her grandchildren, 13-year-old Mally Steele, survived that night.
The body of Melokuhle Steele, 11, was found on a river bank on January 28, not far from the Khumalos’ home. Five-year-old Kholeka Khumalo’s body was found the next day, kilometres away from her sister. But no trace was found of Ayabonga.
Then another freak storm struck Dundee in late March, claiming the lives of Warrant Officer Anesh “Jakes” Juggan, wife, Molly, and friend, Ashoak Rajoo, who had been travelling in a police van when it was swept off a bridge crossing the river.
The trio were buried in Dundee this week.
The next day, an extensive three-day search began for Ayabonga’s body.
It involved SAPS units from Dundee, Ladysmith, Pietermaritzburg, Port Shepstone and Umhlali, and the metro police.
The Patriotic Alliance committee in the area had pushed for the search after meeting Khumalo.
“We wanted to help her find closure,” said André de Bruin, a PA representative from Wentworth, Durban. He said the Endumeni Municipality had ignored Ayabonga’s family.
Five K9-Unit dogs were deployed to the search party, which included an SAPS diving team and representatives of the bomb squad.
Standing at the tree where Melokuhle’s body was found, Khumalo gazed at police on horseback as they scanned the fields where the river had broken its banks.
“I need to leave this place. The only thing holding me back is that Ayabonga is still here,” she said.
Melokuhle’s mother, Stephanie Steele, 32, was too emotional to talk about the family’s suffering. The father of Melokuhle, Ayabonga and Mally was nowhere to be seen. He no longer lived with the family, said Khumalo, who referred to her grandchildren as “her kids”.
But Kholeka’s father, Sihle Mdunge, had joined the search, and was soon waist-deep in the murky river searching amid slimy branches.
Recollecting the night of the storm, Khumalo recounted how she had seen Kholeka standing on the banks of the swollen riven, holding hands with Ayabonga and Melokuhle before they were swallowed by the river.
“I tried to run after them, but the water caught me too.” She said she had been tossed and rolled about in the river until she managed to clutch hold of a neighbour’s fence.
“I just clung there and screamed. My children had been washed away,” said Khumalo.
She said her eldest grandchild, Mally, was the last person to see Kholeka, Melokuhle and Ayabonga. She told her grandmother: “Ma, I saw them floating in the water. I called for them but only Ayabonga answered.
“He was crying out: ‘Mally, come take me out of the water. I’m cold’. Then the water pushed him down. I never saw him again.”
Khumalo, who is a Sunday school teacher, followed the search party with the sniffer dogs from bridge to bridge.
The river, which dragged Kholeka’s body away from her home, is now a stream dotted with sand heaps.
With no trace of Ayabonga’s body, Khumalo insisted that a search party return to the site where Kholeka’s body had been found.
Khumalo said she had washed Kholeka’s body for two hours. The 5-year-old girl’s scalp was cracked, her hair had been ripped away and her ribs jutted out. Her face not even her eyes were recognisable, said Khumalo
She said she could not wash away the image of worms eating Kholeka’s body.
“There were creepy-crawlies all over her.
“Melo’s body was better, but Kholeka’s body was ” Khumalo was unable to complete the sentence.
Specialist forensic pathologist Dr Reggie Perumal said after four months the body of a young child would be in an advanced stage of decomposition as its protective mechanisms no longer existed.
“This is a small body that has been tumbling in the water, as in a washing machine. The body may hit rocks, become dismembered and bones may break.
“Scavengers such as fish and crabs will nibble at the body, and ultimately it will become unrecognisable.
“You will need DNA sample testing or clothing to identify the body,” Perumal said.
Nicknamed uphaphile (mischievous), Kholeka had been a very popular girl in the community. “Even if you saw her for the first time, it’s as if she knew you long ago,” said Khumalo.
Melokuhle had been a lead singer at the Sunday school.
“She just loved her Christian songs,” said Khumalo.
“On the day (she was lost) she was singing a song that Babo (a South African gospel artist) sings,” Khumalo said.
The girls were buried after Khumalo was discharged from hospital following treatment for injuries and hypothermia.
Four months on, Khumalo still has Ayabonga’s clothes. She wants to leave Dundee, but not before burying her grandson.
By noon on Thursday, the sun scorched the Dundee veld and tempers flared among members of the search party.
“At the end, we have to say we did what we needed to do for this baby,” a police official said to his arguing colleagues.
Ayabonga, said Khumalo, had dreamt of driving a vehicle.
“I used to tell everyone that one day he will drive us,” said Khumalo.
“And, true to my word, I once found him on his bed pretending to drive the baby by his legs. He was a very playful boy.”
Tears streaming down her cheeks, Khumalo said she could still hear the voices of her grandchildren as they had stood on the banks of the flooded river.
“They were praying, egameni likeJesu! egameni likaJesu! (In the name of Jesus),” said Khumalo.
“Then they were swallowed (by the river).”
There are three empty spaces in the Sunday school classroom where Khumalo teaches.
Those will never be filled, said Khumalo, crying.