‘We couldn’t afford a life jacket’ – Parents of boy who drowned at school camp speak out

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Dad scraped together R800 to send son on school outing, but says …

● It was as though time had stood still for Enoch Mpianzi. It just would not move fast enough.

Such was the 13-year-old’s excitement ahead of his grade 8 orientation camp that he told his mother, Antho Mpianzi, that he could not sleep the night before.

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Enoch’s father, Guy Intamba, had borrowed R800 to pay for the Parktown Boys’ High School camp on the Crocodile River, but he and Antho couldn’t afford the life jacket the school told parents to buy.

The unemployed refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo were not too worried as they put their son on a bus in Johannesburg on Wednesday for the drive to the Nyati Bush and Riverbreak, near Brits in North West. He had learnt to swim in a pool. It was the last time they saw him alive. Later that day, the raft Enoch had built with 11 other boys capsized in a river swollen by recent rains. The teenager failed to surface and his disappearance went unnoticed for 17 hours. His body was found only on Friday morning, 3km downstream.

As he stood on the river bank watching police divers retrieve his son’s body, Intamba’s grief was punctuated by anguished questions about the safety and monitoring systems at the school camp.

“I think the people who went there with the children were not organised. Somebody messed up,” Intamba told the Sunday Times. Staff, he said, should have known exactly which children were going into the river.

Instead, when the school called him on Thursday it was to ask if Enoch had made it onto the bus.

“I told them that together with my wife we escorted the child to the bus and pushed the trolley with his bags so we are sure that he went to the trip. They then said that they will call me again,” he said.

“It was around 4pm when they confirmed Enoch was missing.”

Intamba said the alarm was raised only when a boy who sat next to Enoch on the bus informed staff his friend was missing.

Enoch’s uncle, Sebastien Kodiemoka, said his nephew did not have a life jacket. “A life jacket was required from the parents. We didn’t have money for that. It was for them [school staff and organisers] to decide if he could participate, because it is them who took them to the site.

“We did not imagine that it is a natural stream. We thought it was a swimming pool where you have different water levels.”

He said Enoch’s parents had signed an indemnity form. “We understood that it was an acknowledgement that our child had gone to the trip, and not to go there and be killed.”

Public interest lawyer Richard Spoor condemned the indemnity yesterday, saying the failure of the school and the lodge to provide life jackets — and telling families to provide their own — bordered on the “absurd”.

He added: “This is not an oversight but a reckless disregard for the consequences, for his health and welfare. Even if Enoch could swim, you do not send someone out onto the water without a life jacket and helmet.

“Indemnity is not an excuse to do whatever you like,” he said, and does not indemnify one against “recklessness”.

Nyati Bush and Riverbreak has photographs on its website of children wearing orange life jackets, but it is not known whether the lodge provides them to clients.

Lodge MD Anton Knoetze said he was too emotional to speak to the Sunday Times, but he told Eyewitness News (EWN) that Enoch was not wearing a life jacket and did not seem to be a strong swimmer.

“Maybe it was a little bit of peer pressure [for him to get on the raft],” he said. “When the first group started panicking, we stopped the activity and moved to something else.”

When the raft capsized, boys were taken out of the water and school staff checked they were all accounted for, said Knoetze.

“The school teachers and principal were calling around and searching … we went on with our activities because we don’t know the children and their names.”

Knoetze also told EWN the boys were told to stay in the shallow water, but Enoch’s group left the designated area.

North West police spokesman Col Adele

Myburgh said those organising the raft-building claimed to have asked the boys if they could swim.

“Only those who answered yes were apparently allowed onto the water. Those who could not swim went to do other activities.

Enoch did not have a life jacket on,” she said.

Chris Degenaar, chair of the Crocodile Community Protection Group, said members joined the search as soon as Enoch was reported missing.

“The river is not a small spruit. It is a big river which was flowing very fast and whose levels were high from the rain,” he said.

“The body was found quite far down the river, which is extremely dangerous not only because of its size and strength but also because of the crocodiles. The crocodiles are huge. Some measure 6m.”

A police search & rescue source said the National Small Vessels Act made life jackets compulsory, and health and safety consultant Richard Gibbon said the Occupational Health and Safety Act requires all risks and hazards to be identified on products sold.

“What was sold in terms of this activity was a product. Questions must be asked as to whether a risk assessment was undertaken for what the children were doing, and if so were there mitigations against the risks, which include drowning” said Gibbon.

A Parktown Boys’ High statement on Friday said headmaster Malcolm Williams was at the camp with seven teachers, a child development and protection consultant and the head boy and deputy head boy.

It said the “water activity” on Wednesday afternoon was “supervised by trained camp facilitators” and was followed by a hike, supper and a sleepout in the veld. Enoch’s disappearance “became apparent” late on Thursday morning, the statement said.

Williams declined to answer Sunday Times questions, which he referred to Steve Mabona, spokesperson for Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi.

Lesufi told a news conference on Friday that an independent inquiry was under way into Enoch’s death, and safety measures were a key term of reference.

Enoch’s parents arrived in SA in 2001 and survive on piecemeal jobs. They asked for a fees exemption when they applied to enrol Enoch at Parktown Boys.

The teenager’s elder brother, Mordecai Guy, said Enoch had been full of life and wanted to be a lawyer. “Among all my brothers he could easily make friends. He was very social,” he said.

Enoch knew how to swim but not in a river, he said. “He only swam in a pool.”

Intamba said he was convinced Enoch died due to the school’s negligence. He is considering approaching the South African Human Rights Commission for assistance.


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