Looking for Khayalethu Magadla: The rescuers share their own stories of pain and sadness
For three weeks, 35 members of the City of Johannesburg Emergency Management Services navigated their way through sewer pipelines in their bid to retrieve the body of six-year-old Khayalethu Magadla. Daily Maverick spoke to some of the searchers. Khayalethu Magadla’s call was a first of its kind for us and maybe that’s why it took us so many days to retrieve his body,” said Robert Mulaudzi, the spokesperson for the City of Johannesburg Emergency Management Services (CoJEMS).
He was reliving the efforts to locate Khayalethu, aged six, who fell into a manhole more than three weeks ago while playing with friends in Soweto. His body was found in Eldorado Park on Saturday.
“Mostly, we attend river searches. In the previous incidents where a child fell in a manhole, it was not a direct sewer and it took us a day or two to retrieve the bodies, after searching seven manholes and at most eight manholes. In Khayalethu’s case, it was 30 manholes in 20 days,” said Mulaudzi.
Mulaudzi said that in this case, they relied on high-level technology, heavy-duty machinery, water technicians as well as rescuers from the police and the Johannesburg EMS Aquatic Rescue Unit.
‘A mother’s worst nightmare’
Ivy Mabogo is an aquatic rescuer at Johannesburg EMS with 13 years of experience. She was the first to go down the 8.8m-deep, narrow manhole into which Khayalethu fell. Mabogo braved the cold in a wetsuit, surgical gloves, mask and head guard to search for Khayalethu. Searchers dug through sewage and dirty water and cleared the pipelines of any abnormalities.
“From day one it was not an easy journey. We thought we would find him on the same day but the volume of water, pressure… sewage being transported in the water, made the work more difficult. The other challenge we faced is that some manholes were too deep and we couldn’t locate some of them, resulting in us taking a bit longer to locate the boy’s body. Being a woman and prone to bacterial infections when exposed to sewer water was a challenge but I didn’t let that stop me. As a mother myself I often wondered how Khaya’s mom felt when we told her of yet another unsuccessful search… not finding him for consecutive days was stressful.”
For Mabogo, giving up the search was never an option for her or the team, who worked tirelessly from early morning till late, to find the boy.
“It could have been my child and that is a mother’s worst nightmare,” she said.
Mabogo had mixed emotions when Khayalethu’s body was found, but she was grateful that the Magadla family now had closure. “I don’t think the family would be at peace not knowing where the boy was. I am glad his body was retrieved and the family can bury him with dignity,” she told Daily Maverick.
‘More mind-draining than physical’
“The search for Khayalethu was one of those unique exercises that was mind-draining more than physical. We were hard at work trying to find the boy but in the back of our minds, we didn’t want to face the end result in a certain negative way.”
These were the words of Nkosiyezwe Mzolo who was a member of the swift water rescue team that searched for Khayalethu. Mzolo has 13 years of experience in swift water rescue.
Mzolo said that after 16 days of unsuccessfully searching for Khayalethu they still couldn’t give up. He kept repeating to himself: “Khaya, we are looking for you, your family is worried, please show yourself.”
Mzolo’s nine-year-old son was distressed each day he came home with no news of finding the body. When the body was found, the first thing Mzolo did was call home to tell his son the news. “Finding Khayalethu’s body was the first time I was excited to find a dead body. The City of Johannesburg has to deal with the manhole issue because it is dehumanising to have found Khayalethu’s body lying close to the sewer waste. That alone made me wonder what he could have gone through from the manhole where he fell in and 20km down the stream. To this day I still have the vivid images of him lying there on replay in my head.”
‘The call touched all of us’
“In our line of work, on a daily basis, we receive different calls but the call on the incident of Khayalethu touched all of us. It was extraordinary. I couldn’t sleep. It was harder every day to wear my uniform with pride because the community was looking up to us to find Khayalethu,” said Joseph Bongani Sithole.
Sithole has been working at Johannesburg EMS for 18 years as a fire fighter. He is currently a platoon commander managing shifts at Fairview Fire Station. Sithole was part of the search-and-rescue team for Khayalethu.
“Searching and trying to rescue Khayalethu’s body was risky… but it’s our work. There is no ordinary person who can spend days inside a drain transporting all sorts of sewage but in the plight to find Khayalethu we all had to adapt to the situation. At some point, we asked Johannesburg Water to close the water for some time to aid the search because the volume of water in the pipelines was a lot and coming off with too much pressure. Before we knew it, Soweto residents were out protesting and there was no other alternative, Johannesburg Water had to restore the water supply and we were back on the planning board.
“The Khayalethu incident has emphasised what we already know: we can’t prepare enough for a call because we don’t know what you will be met with on the other side… that’s just the nature of our work.”
Source: Daily Maverick