Six-month-old Singalakha Sonamzi and her three big sisters were taken into care by the Gauteng government because it was supposed to be safe. Instead she died on Human Rights Day and has now become the symbol of an unwinnable fight between the Gauteng Department of Social Development, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union, strikers and non-governnmental organisations (NGOs). Her death highlights the possibility that Gauteng is heading for another Life Esidimeni tragedy.
Singalakha was about four months old when she arrived at Walter Sisulu Child and Youth Care Centre on January 31 with her eight-year-old, six-year-old and five-year-old sisters. They were taken into care due to their home circumstances after a legal process in a Gauteng children's court.
Singalakha was born with foetal alcohol syndrome, a low birth weight and was in and out of hospital, said Gauteng authorities. Despite that, childcare workers say she was a happy baby and was recovering in their care.
Then healthcare workers went on strike.
On February 10, Nehawu marched to the national Department of Social Development in Pretoria to present their demands: these include better starting wages for those with four-year degrees as opposed to matric and rural allowances for those in rural areas. This is a national dispute so it's being dealt with by the national department not the provinces.
On February 22, Nehawu marched to the National Treasury in Pretoria with the same demands.
On March 1, Nehawu submitted a strike notice to the government for a March 13 strike. There was confusion over this date with a Nehawu official initially saying the notification was on February 10.
On Monday March 13, the strike started.
On March 16, another strike notice warned of a secondary strike starting March 20.
Despite South Africa's history of violent protests and angry strikes, the government appears to have been caught unawares. Both Nehawu and the Gauteng government admit there was no discussion between them over how to run the legally defined essential services sectors — which include the child care centres — during the strike.
Social Development MEC Nandi Mayathula-Khoza says they thought it would be a one-day strike. Instead, 13 child and youth care centres (CYCCs) and at least six department offices were blockaded by strikers. The head of department "sent circulars to everyone". It didn't help.
On March 14, Singalakha, her sisters and eight other children were moved out of Walter Sisulu CYCC to the Bethany Trust Home, which is "a registered and proper non-profit organisation", said Mayathula-Khoza. "The transfer was effected in order to ensure optimal care of the sickly girl child in the light of the unavailability of the required number of child and youth care workers."
Striking childcare workers, who refused to be named, said they were picketing outside that centre and watched the children being driven away. "We went to the car to talk to the kids," said one. "We saw the baby wasn't there, they left the baby. We asked them, where is the child? They said, yoh, we forgot! They ran back to fetch the child." A second striker confirmed the story.
At Bethany, Singalakha "received all the necessary medical and child care services" and, while there, "she gained weight and her health improved", said Mayathula-Khoza.
On March 16, strikers "had barricaded entrances at all our centres barring essential supplies such as food, medication, cleaning services and the laundry," said Mayathula-Khoza. "I was told how some of our children who have chronic illness such as HIV/Aids could not access their medication or food. Attempts to enlist ambulance services did not yield the desired results as access to some of the hardest-hit child- and youth-care centres were denied more than once."
Officials visited the centres. Itireleng CCYC was worst, Mayathula-Khoza said.
"We were confronted by scenes of frightened, hungry, visibly distraught children and severely traumatised remaining staff who had been locked in for several days," Mayathula-Khoza said.
The department then contacted Nehawu leadership, to "appeal for restraint", said the MEC.
At some point, the department won an interdict against the strikers, which required them to keep to the law by allowing pickets but only if they were at least 100m from the centres. Strikers said they kept to this, the government said they didn't. At least eight strikers are believed to have been arrested for allegedly breaking the interdict.
On Tuesday March 21, Human Rights Day, Singalakha died.
"You can imagine how numb and defeated I felt yesterday when I received the news," said Mayathula-Khoza. "It is unclear what caused the little girl's death, but the fact that we had to move her along with 90 other children due to the acts of violence as experienced last week, makes our work to protect children very challenging indeed," the MEC said.
Mayathula-Khoza said the baby had a bottle feed shortly before 5am but then "closed her eyes and stopped moving". Staff tried to resuscitate her but failed; she was declared dead at 6.42am. The department announced her death that evening.
Singalakha's death was reported to the police the same morning and an inquest docket opened. Her family has been told.
After the news of Singalakha's death broke, Nehawu said it would intensify the strike.
The striking childcare workers said they were not to blame for Singalakha's death. They denied blockading the centres and questioned whether the NGOs were fit to look after the children.
"The truck of laundry was delivered [to the centre]. The truck of food was delivered. We even opened for the bakery truck," said one striker. Several strikers said they held pickets, not blockades, and that essential supplies were allowed through. "All lies," they said of the government's version.
"We never blocked anyone and we never killed anyone," said one striker.
"The baby was fine," said another.
"She was doing very well. She was okay, she was happy. It's just that she needed care at all times. She wasn't a sick baby, just that foetal alcohol syndrome; she was recovering after she came to us.
"When we heard the news last night, it was so sad. We knew the child was okay with us," the same striker said. "Maybe where they took the child, they didn't know how to look after her."
A senior official in the provincial Social Development Department showed photos and video footage on a cellphone of strikers at the centres, some wearing Nehawu T-shirts, walking around with sjamboks, burning tyres in front of the doors, and a gate chained shut and locked allegedly by a striker.
Both sides emphasised that the strike was a national dispute and that they needed the national office to resolve it.
While essential services are legally defined, neither side seems to have clarity on how to actually implement those legally permitted essential services; the department's senior officials say it's complicated by non-strikers being refused access by strikers, while strikers insist they haven't blocked anyone.
Shoki Tshabalala, the head of the Gauteng Department of Social Development, said the essential services issue was raised with the national office. "It's being escalated for attention," she said.
"We have really tried our level best to save our children. We do not want this to become another Life Esidimeni," said Mayathula-Khoza.
While the union, the strikers and the government continue to fail to deal with the labour issues, the children wait in NGOs that may or may not be equipped to look after them.
Singalakha's sisters are three of those children. And Singalakha's body waits in the Roodepoort mortuary, while the government decides whether or not to pay for her burial.