Picture: Gallo Images/Sowetan/Tiro Ramatlhatse
Picture: Gallo Images/Sowetan/Tiro Ramatlhatse

The Supreme Court of Appeal has slammed education authorities for the “cruel and denigrating” way they treated the family of a five-year-old child who drowned in a school pit latrine – and has ordered the government to pay the family R1.4m in damages for the “emotional shock and grief” of the little boy’s horrific death.

In a unanimous judgment delivered by the court on Wednesday, Judge Eric Leach said the case brought against basic education minister Angie Motshekga and the Limpopo education department by the family of Michael Komape was one that “cried out for settlement” – given that the government had admitted that its negligence had caused the little boy’s death.

Yet, he said, the state had forced Michael’s grieving family to go to court “and relive the trauma of the past in excruciating detail”.

“The [government’s] attitude to the litigation, up to and including this appeal in which in certain respects they attempted to defend the indefensible, is to be deprecated in the strongest possible terms. As a result, [the Komape family] have been prevented from getting on with their lives and recovering from their trauma.”

The Komape family had turned to the appeal court after the Limpopo High Court dismissed their claim for emotional shock and grief linked to Michael’s January 2014 death, and awarded amounts of R6,000 to each of his three siblings to obtain counselling.

In the appeal court’s ruling, Judge Leach recounted how Michael died after going, unattended, to a pit latrine and falling into it after the seat on which he was sitting broke. Hearing that her son was missing, Michael’s mother Rosina rushed to his school – and was present when her child’s body was eventually discovered.

“He had drowned, and was lying in the filth in the pit with hand outstretched as if seeking help. The school staff would not let Mrs Komape remove him, despite her belief that he could still be saved. His body was left in the pit for hours, covered in muck and human faeces, until, eventually, it was removed,” the judge said.

Michael’s father was also told by the school’s principal that he could not remove his son’s body “as it was too late anyway”.

Judge Leach noted that a “common thread” that ran through the often emotional evidence given by the Komape family was that “their mental agony and grief had been exacerbated by the unfeeling attitude of the education authorities” – which included staff forcing Michael’s parents to delete images of the scene where he had died and threatening them with criminal prosecution.

All of this contributed to the shock and grief that the state will now have to compensate the Komape family for – and sends a clear message to government about how it should respond to tragedies caused by its own negligence.

Arguably, had the government treated the Komape family with compassion, it would have offered them a reasonable settlement immediately after his horrific death, rather than forcing them to go to court to fight an expensive, painful and unnecessary legal battle.