Deadly wall collapse: ‘She was crying out softly for her mother’
He managed to save one child from the rubble, but it was too late for three-year-old Asiphelele Buthelezi
Little Asiphelele Buthelezi took her last breath as she rested her head on *George Mtsweni’s sneaker, softly crying: “Mama, Mama.”
“I had pulled her and another child from under the bricks. Her head was badly injured. She was crying out softly for her mother,” Mtsweni told Times Select, just metres from where the body of the three-year-old lay, covered in silver foil.
She was one of three children who died on Monday when the wall of her home, a dilapidated building in Doornfontein, collapsed onto Davis street, crushing her and two others while they were playing.
“She kept on saying ‘Mama, Mama’, but yes, she is gone,” said Mtsweni, looking at his white sneaker which had spots of blood from the now deceased toddler.
“I cried. I really cried because it was the first time I had ever experienced something like that. The other child I pulled out luckily survived,” he added.Asiphelele has a twin brother who continued playing around in the street, close to where his sister’s lifeless body lay, apparently oblivious to what had just happened.
Six-year-old Nqubeko Ngcobo and 10-year-old Aphiwenkosi Shoba also lost their lives when tons of bricks collapsed on them.
Mtsweni said it was shortly after midday when he heard a loud thud and rushed to the scene to help.
“I saw people running. I saw the bricks scattered. That is when I saw the woman (Asiphelele’s mother, Cleopatra) crying for me to help her child,” said George.
As Mtsweni spoke to Times Select, Cleopatra sat next to the body of her child, her ankle bandaged as she too was injured when the wall collapsed. She was standing outside, close to her children.Next to her on the tar road among the bricks, piles of rubbish and a stream of sewage were Fisani Shoba and Tholakele Zuma. They sat next to the bodies of their children, their heads covered in scarves, with blankets draped over their shoulders.
Evey so often, the mothers would break down into tears and would be comforted by their relatives and neighbours who stood close by.
At least two other people, 32-year-old Kagiso Majola and five-year-old Phumlani Msizazwe, were injured in the collapse.
Times Select spoke to two people who lived on the premises.
“The place doesn’t have a name. We just call it KwaNgcobo because that is the owner’s name,” said one of the women, who asked not to be named.
“This place has just been dangerous to live in for some time. The wall that fell on the people had a large crack on it,” she said.
“Around 2013, there was fire here and one man burnt severely. I’m not sure what started that fire. In the same year, there was a party here and a fight broke out. One person pulled out a gun and shot at people. Three children were injured and a woman died.”
She said she had seen a plume of smoke shortly after the wall collapsed.
Despite all of these disasters, she has no plans to vacate Ngcobo’s premises.
“We have no choice but to stay. We cannot afford to leave. We don’t have proper jobs to afford formal houses,” she said.The wall that collapsed had not only formed the fence of the premises but was also the wall of the home of at least two tenants.
Another woman, who also did not want to be named, said she had little hope that this incident would prompt the landlord to renovate his premises.
“He just doesn't like to spend money and if you complain, you're shown the gate,” Mapule said.
“We have tried to apply for government housing. Social services has come here and taken a list of our names twice, promising we would get houses. It has never happened,” she said.
Many rooms have neither doors nor ceilings and residents say they buy their own material to fix the building.
“When you leave, though, you don’t take those materials with you,” the one woman said. “You can buy them back from him though.”None of the tenants at Ngcobo's premises paid the same amount in rent.
There were more than 50 structures in his yard, the tenants said.
Those living in shacks erected in the yard pay anything from R200 a month. Some of those who live in board structures pay about R300. Brick structures are more expensive.
Johannes Ngcobo, who claims to be the building’s owner, was among the dozens of people who stood behind the tape that police had cordoned off.
“I don’t know what happened. I was in my house when I heard a loud noise and then I saw people outside,” he said, dressed in a blue overall and a cap.
“The wall that fell was not in a good condition. I know that. There have been a lot of problems since I got this building 16 years ago,” said Ngcobo.
He claimed to have been unable to fix the building because there were currently some disputes over its ownership.
This was sparked by fraudulent auctioneers who sold the same building to two people, he said. The matter was currently in court.
“They say I have hijacked the building which is not true. I cannot maintain it while it’s not in my name. I have already lost a lot in trying to maintain it, about R250,000,” he said.
“I am hurt and disappointed over what has happened. I was waiting for this [court matter] to be sorted before I can take action. But I will fix the wall because the people who live here have nowhere else to go. All I ask is that they give me a chance to fix this,” he said.Smodeni Zulu, whose son Phumlani survived the collapse, said he hoped they would not be forced to move. He and his family have lived there for over a year.
“We are here because we don’t have money to go anywhere else and, with my security guard salary, this is all I can afford,” Zulu said.
He, his wife and six children live in a one-room dwelling. He pays R450 a month in rent.
“I know it’s not safe but what else can I do?” he asked.
His son suffered a gash to the head after being struck by a brick. He was not seriously injured.
“I feel pain for [the families who lost their children]. I feel like I have also lost a child. The youngest one who died [Asiphelele] was my child’s friend. I don’t know what happened but I think they could have been playing together when it happened,” Zulu said.City of Johannesburg MMC for public safety Michael Sun said the building needed to be torn down.
“We want to demolish the building. We don’t want further injuries. It is dangerous,” Sun told Times Select.
According to city plans, the premises are marked as a parking lot.
Sun said the wall that collapsed appeared not to be part of the original structure, but had been added to the front of the property.
The group of around 100 people who had lived in KwaNgcobo would be provided with temporary emergency shelter and blankets, Sun said.
“The South African police will look if there is foul play or negligence and those associated with the building will face the full might of the law,” he said.
* not his real name
Additional reporting by Katharine Child