A Fun Day at Nyandeni Primary School on 12 December ended in misery for the Tshabalala family, when a horrific injury left nine-year-old Melokuhle Tshabalala paralysed. And now the school and the Department of Basic Education in Mpumalanga have refused to tell his father what happened or share video footage and the school’s report of the incident with the family.
An excited Melokuhle, a grade 3 pupil, left home wearing his favourite Puma sneakers only to return in the knowledge that he will probably never walk again, after spending seven weeks first at Standerton Provincial Government Hospital and then the Witbank General Hospital battling for his life. Two of those weeks were spent in the intensive care unit.
Melokuhle and other pupils were standing in line waiting for food when a big tree fell, says his father Nkosana Tshabalala, 42, trapping and eventually paralysing Melokuhle. The school initially said it would involve Tshabalala in drafting a report on the incident, but then did an about-turn on its promise to share the video and final report. The principal said the school was not allowed to share this material because the matter is now with the provincial department’s lawyers.
“I gave them a USB to put the video on. But when I went for it … they told me they no longer can share it with me, that the department forbade them from divulging information,” says Tshabalala.
He doesn’t know who took his son to the Standerton hospital. He “got a call [from the school] at around 10.30am to 11am”, telling him that a tree had fallen and some children were hurt.
From school to hospital
Tshabalala, who had two children at Nyandeni – Mpilwenhle, 8, and Melokuhle – drove to the school in a hurry. He was not told that his son was injured.
When he got there, he could not find Melokuhle. He talked to his class teacher Mrs Madi. “Because I was told that when the tree fell some kids scattered and ran away, I wanted her to check if Melokuhle ran away with the other kids,” Tshabalala says. But the teacher did not know.
Tshabalala took his daughter with him to look for Melokuhle. In the car, Mpilwenhle told him that other pupils had been laughing at her because “her brother was trapped under a tree”.
“Only then did I learn of what had befallen my child … Ngehliy’nyembezi (tears streamed down my face), and I wondered why the school would lie to me about what happened,” he says.
He drove to the hospital and was met by a teacher, who told him to go and identify the injured child. “I knew right away it was Melokuhle because when I got inside, they showed me his shoes.”
Doctors at the Standerton hospital initially treated Melokuhle. But after about “four hours”, he was taken to the Witbank hospital by ambulance as he was in too bad a shape to be airlifted, Tshabalala says. He followed the ambulance and for many days in November and December, became a familiar face at the hospital.
“I would drive every day to see him, until a time when the hospital stopped allowing visitors,” says Tshabalala. This was when the Omicron variant caused Covid cases to spike again. Unable to enter the ward and without access to his son’s doctor and nurses, it was the hospital’s head of department who called to tell him that “the child’s lower part is paralysed”, that the child is now “paraplegic”.
Melokuhle has not been to school since it opened on 12 January. The school is not wheelchair friendly, and his operation wound has not yet healed. “My child’s injury pains me a lot. Now he’s gone back to being a toddler … Sometimes he cannot even sleep because of unbearable pain,” says Melokuhle’s mother Sibongile Msimango, 34.
Msimango says Melokuhle asks her and his father about going back to school all the time. And they tell him that he will go when he recovers. “But then he asks again, ‘When?’ And I usually do not have an answer.”
She is worried about her child’s mental health, too. “Going to school will help him not to overthink also. Lately, he goes quiet for a long time, and you can tell he is lost in thought.”
Tshabalala says the chairman of the school governing body, Mr Madela, promised to get Melokuhle study materials that he could use to learn from home until such time as he could go back to school. It is a promise that was never fulfilled.
After the Daily Sun newspaper published a report about Melokuhle’s injury in late January, the school psychologist and principal came to see the family and promised to help Melokuhle continue his schooling. Again, it is a promise that has not been kept.
Tshabalala asked the Gert Sibande district office to intervene, after going “from pillar to post” to try and find out what happened to his son. But they failed to help. He spoke to chief education officer Mr Phako over the phone, who promised to go to the school on a fact-finding mission.
But Phako never came back to Tshabalala, to share his findings or the report that the school had submitted to the department. Tshabalala drove about 100km to Ermelo to talk to Phako, “but now, when I got to him, he said he no longer could help,” says Tshabalala. Phako said he cannot comment because the matter is with the department.
At Nyandeni Primary School, the principal and vice-principal were visibly hostile. They would not say how the accident happened, how Melokuhle got out from under the tree or how he got to hospital. They refused to say why they would not show his father footage of the incident, or why they would not let Tshabalala participate in, or even show him, the report that was sent to the department.
Mpumalanga Department of Education spokesperson Jasper Zwane said it is aware of what happened to Melokuhle. But he denied that the department had forbidden the school to show Tshabalala the footage or the report.
He also said that the school was justified in responding to questions with hostility, because every question about incidents in Mpumalanga public schools must be posed to him and not the school involved. But not everyone is bound by this “gatekeeper” policy.
Zweli “ZB” Sibeko, who has been a member of the school’s governing body since April 2021, says the tree incident could have been avoided had a welfare and safety committee been established in time. He says he talked about the tree in many meetings. Though his initial concern was that it obstructed the safety cameras’ view, a welfare and safety committee would have foreseen other hazards, he says.
Sibeko adds that at least three days before the incident, there was a big storm in Standerton. He says it is possible that the tree was disturbed then and that footage from that day should be able to show that. “And it is an old tree. It was there in 1952 when my parents went to that school. There were bound to be some problems.
“What really worried me is the school deciding to call this problem a ‘natural disaster’ when they talked to the parent … This will be a problem if the parent does not do something about this right now,” says Sibeko.
Melokuhle’s parents are doing something about it. Tshabalala and Msimango say that they think the school was negligent and that it is hiding something. They have engaged lawyer Tony Mathe.
Mathe, who would not mention specifics, said: “We are working on justice for Melokuhle, although we are threatened by the lawyers of the department.
“The treatment we have received from the attorneys of the department is nothing short of disrespect and [undermines] our authority. We can confirm that legal action has been triggered but we await one final correspondence to be clarified. Justice for Melokuhle is certain. No matter how long it takes, his rights will be vindicated.”