Batho Pele goes missing in inaction - Helen Zille

The DA leader on the tragic deaths of the four Mmupele children

Batho Pele - Missing in Inaction

The news is often dominated by a single important story, which sometimes "crowds out" others of comparable importance. So it was during the past week, when the passage of the Secrecy Bill through the National Assembly dominated media coverage.

Almost by chance I noticed a small side-bar report that, in a normal week, would have made headlines (see here).

It was the story of the four Mmupele children from a place called "Verdwaal" (which means "lost" in Afrikaans) who died of hunger and thirst in the veld as they went in search of their mothers who had gone to look for work or food on a neighbouring farm.  The children were aged 9, 7, 6 and 2.   They reportedly set out on their journey in a state of near starvation, and walked between  10 and 14 km's in the blazing sun (the temperature was reportedly over 40 degrees) before they collapsed and died, of dehydration and hunger.  First the smaller two, who were found lying together.  Then, some distance away, the older two.   As if it could get any worse, the 6-year old was disabled, walked with a limp, and suffered from TB.

It is a story genuinely too ghastly to contemplate in a democracy with a Bill of Rights and a safety net of child grants intended to prevent children from starving to death.

The various reported accounts of the last days of Sebengu Mmupele (9), Mmapule (7, and the only girl), Olebongeng (6) and Oarabetswe (2) are as horrific as they seem incomprehensible.   

But there is one aspect of the story that has not been reported.  It ranks right up there with "It leaves me cold", one of the most notorious statements in South Africa's history, uttered by apartheid Justice Minister JT Kruger, on hearing of the death in prison of Steve Biko.  

In a move as calculatedly callous, the ANC in the North West Provincial Legislature, rejected a DA motion of condolence for the Mmupele children.  Such motions are traditionally tabled and supported by all parties at times of tragedy (or celebration). 

When DA Provincial Leader, Chris Hattingh, moved and motivated that "that the North West Provincial Legislature register a motion of condolence as well as serious concern about the tragic death of four children who died of thirst and hunger," the ANC rejected it.   Hattingh then requested that motion appear on the Parliamentary order paper for later consideration.  After hearing of this, all the ANC's official pious hand-wringing about the tragedy has left me stone cold. 

Predictably, after the reports appeared, individuals and NGOs were quick to respond to the plight of the community of Verdwaal, and Elizabeth Mmupele the 27-year-old pregnant mother of the younger two children who died looking for her.   Their father has reportedly disappeared and did not support them.  Elizabeth is also the older sister of the two older deceased children, who were the youngest children of Elizabeth's mother, Mrs Martha Mmupele, 44.  Her husband, Moses, works at a nearby farm.

None of the children received grants, because neither of their mothers have ID documents.  In fact, Elizabeth does not even have a birth certificate.  This was confirmed by the DA's constituency MP, Joe McGluwa, who visited the families to establish the facts and is assisting them in getting the documentation they need.

According to Mrs Martha Mmupele, she has struggled to get an ID book, but her application has been rejected numerous times because the surname on her baptism certificate differs from the surname on her mother's ID.  

The acting North West Provincial Manager of Home Affairs, Irene Mantlhasi, has rejected this account and suggested that Mmupele is not telling the truth.  Mantlhasi says she has ordered an investigation to establish what happened.  The DA will follow this investigation with interest and continue to ask questions in Parliament.

Next up with government comment was Mr Vuyisile Ngesi, the spokesman for the North West Department of Social Development, Women, Children and People with Disabilities who reportedly blamed the deaths of the children on ignorance regarding the availability of social services and lack of parental supervision.  He said the department had special programmes and projects aimed at educating people about the importance of social grant applications and identity documents.  "The challenge is that people do not use the services at their disposal," Ngesi said.  He added that the family had received trauma and bereavement counselling.

The next government statement emanated from Ms Irene Khula who is the "master trainer and data capturer" for the Social Development Department's "War on Poverty" in the North West.  She is reported to have expressed surprise that her department had been unaware of the extreme poverty in the area.  She noted that Verdwaal was not on the list sent to the province from the national Department, and they had only learnt about the extent of poverty in the area after the deaths of the Mmupele children.

Not to be outdone, the spokesman for the national Department of Social Development, Cornelius Monama, announced that the death of the children was a reminder of the urgent need to fight poverty.  "We are working together with other departments to intervene in matters affecting children.  We are confident that the North West provincial government is dealing with this specific matter and that other families in similar situations are also being assisted," he told the Pretoria News.

Thus spoke the spokesman for the very department whose annual report revealed that it had overspent its administration budget by R8,8-million, largely due to overseas trips by officials.  When the travelling officials had reached the extended limit of their own ample budget, they dipped into the budget for children's projects, which was also overspent, not on the welfare of children, but for the purpose of further travel.  In fact, when it came to the projects the Department was supposed to undertake to improve the lives of children, it had only achieved two out of eight.   

Yet in the week ahead, the Department's officials will be found travelling again, holding various events at desirable venues to mark the "16 days of activism for no violence against women and children".  Once more, every Province has been asked to supply buses to transport people to these junkets.  The Western Cape said no.  We have more pressing needs to spend our money on than more pointless parties that only give officials the excuse they seek for the extensive travel they so enjoy.   

This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter