Two swept away in canal

Malieka Paulse looks at the spot where her 8-year-old daughter, Abieda, slipped and fell into the canal.

There is anger in Vygieskraal after flood waters swept away an 8-year-old girl who fell into a canal and the man who tried to save her.

Both are presumed drowned, although the authorities say the search for their bodies continues.

Residents took to the streets on Sunday July 12, accusing the authorities of a “lack of urgency” in this case.

Abieda Paulse, 8, was playing with friends near the Vygieskraal canal on Thursday July 9 when she slipped and fell in. A man, known only as Yusuf, was nearby and jumped in after the girl, but the swift current swept both away.

There were rumours in the community that the search had been called off, but provincial police spokesman, Captain FC Van Wyk, said police divers had resumed their search on Monday July 13, at 8am, after suspending it temporarily because of bad weather.

“The search is ongoing. Our members have searched from the Vygieskraal canal until the Woodstock River mouth,” he said.

Vygieskraal residents started their own search on Saturday July 11. One of them, Ragma Michael, claimed police had stood and watched as some residents had gone under the road surface in the canal.

“They have failed us. If this was a leafy area, then they would use all their resources, but they do not acknowledge people living in the vlei,” she said.

Michael Steenkamp, Abieda’s father, thanked the community for standing together and helping with the search, but he said he was disappointed in the authorities.

“This could have happened to anybody’s child. I am frustrated with the authorities. We went to Athlone SAPS three times, and every time they tell us to go home and that they will inform us of any developments, but there is no communication from them. We don’t even know where they are searching.”

He had struggled to sleep since the tragedy, he said.

Malieka Paulse, Abieda’s mother, was comforted by some residents, when she started sobbing during the protest.

Audrey Koopman said her seven-year-old granddaughter had witnessed the accident.

“We feel the pain of this mother. The children who saw what happened are all traumatised, and nobody came out to offer them any counselling. They saw and ran to call their mothers. We can’t get closure,” Ms Koopman said.

Samantha Petersen said those who blamed Ms Paulse for the tragedy were far off the mark.

“A child is a child. Even if I tell my child not to do something, you turn your back for one second, and then they do exactly what you asked them not to do. We cannot blame the mother,” Ms Petersen said.

Ward 48 councillor Magedien Davids spoke to the protesters but emotions ran high and some raised their voices towards him.

Mr Davids made a few phone calls to assure the community that the search was continuing. He denied that Vygieskraal was a “forgotten community”.

“Years ago, we investigated the possibility of throwing concrete over the canal, but this was not feasible,” he said. “The fence that was there was stolen. Before lockdown, our sub-council chairperson, George March, was in talks to erect another fence, but that process had to be put on hold. Vygieskraal is not forgotten as they say. From a humanitarian point of view, we will assist anyone.”

Athlone police spokeswoman Sergeant Zita Norman, said they did not know the identity of the man who had jumped in to rescue Abieda, as he did not live in the community. She said the only information they had about the man was that he was believed to be a foreign national.