Waterpark deaths not explained

Bereaved families fight for answers from ZambiBush waterpark and police long after the deaths of their children.

It was a warm and sunny day in Pretoria on 29 November 2017 and Elna du Toit and two of her friends decided to take their children to the ZambiBush Resort in Sinoville, north of the CBD.

It was supposed to be a fun-filled day for the children who had just finished writing exams and were looking forward to the Christmas break. But within hours the outing turned into a nightmare when Elna’s son, 10-year-old Aiden, bumped his head while going down one of the resort’s supertube water slides, known as The Toilet Bowl. Despite the efforts of paramedics from a private ambulance service that had arrived to assist, Aiden was declared dead at the scene.

The big waterslides at ZambiBush Resort

Some months later when his father, Deon, made inquiries about the investigation into Aiden’s death he discovered that the police docket was still empty; there were no post-mortem reports or statements from eyewitnesses filed. Du Toit says that now, more than a year after Aiden’s death, there has been very little done about the criminal case. The investigating officer, a sergeant at the Sinoville police station, is yet to take a statement from Aiden’s mother, although the docket has apparentlyc been handed over to a state prosecutor.

Meanwhile Deon has left no stone unturned seeking justice for Aiden. He says his motivation is not financial compensation for the loss of his son; his primary aim is to see ZambiBush shut down to prevent injury or death of other children visiting the resort. The Du Toit’s have so far spent more than R280,000 on lawyers. They are currently represented by attorney Latham Dixon of the law firm Macintosh Cross & Farquharson.

On its Facebook page – with more than 70,000 followers – ZambiBush claims to be the biggest water park in Gauteng. Yet the resort operates illegally, encroaching upon the boundaries of several adjacent smallholdings that are zoned solely for agriculture use. The zoning certificates issued by the Tshwane’s Economic Development and Spatial Planning Department make provision for one house and a farm stall on agricultural land but specifically list more than 20 prohibited land uses, including a recreation resort, picnic place, lodge and camping sites. Currently all these facilities are illegally available at ZambiBush.

Bruwer Nel is the owner of the resort, which he started in 2013 on a property then owned by Adri Truter. He claims the first pool and slides were originally built for his own children. Municipal records show that the Tshwane building inspectors cautioned Truter, now deceased, in 2013 that the pools and water slides on her land were illegal and in contravention of the national building regulations, but the warning was ignored. 

Truter committed suicide in 2014 and her property, Portion 40, Kenley Agriculture Holdings, became part of her estate. Nel says he bought Portion 40 from Truter before her death but was unable to register it in his name for several years until the Truter estate was wound up. However, he continued developing and running the resort on the Truter land although it was not legally his property at the time.

Nevertheless a ZambiBush Face-book page was opened in 2014 and a company, ZambiBush (Pty) Ltd, was registered in 2015. Melani Nel, Bruwer Nel’s wife is currently the company’s sole director.

While the registration of Portion 40 was pending, Nel started expanding the ZambiBush Resort by buying three properties adjacent to the Truter land. The total price was R9 million, according to municipal records. Historical photos on Google Earth show that in September 2013 there was only a half-completed pool on the Truter land but by July 2015 two pools had been built on one of Nel’s neighbouring properties, Portion 41. By August the next year there were three massive water slides and a landing pool and at the end of 2017 yet another slide, The Toilet Bowl had been completed and was in use.

All four properties are currently operating as ZambiBush Resort, yet all are still zoned for agricultural use. Building inspectors warned Nel in writing in 2016 and again in 2017 that he was “blatantly in contravention” of the authorised land use and was occupying buildings without the required certificates. His subsequent application for consent use was rejected because Portion 40 was then still not registered in his name.

“I have always played open cards with the Tshwane officials and they knew all along why I was unable to rezone the property,” says Nel. “I negotiated with several different departments and some of them even held their Christmas parties at ZambiBush.”

Aiden du Toit

But two young children had to die at the resort before the Tshwane Metro finally took legal action against Nel in August 2018. And it only happened after the Du Toit family’s lawyer subpoenaed  Tshwane Metro to appear in court. Some manoeuvring saved the city from being dragged before a judge and in return the metro then issued summonses against Nel and the Truter estate. The metro’s effort still proved to be fruitless for the time being because Nel opposed the application to close down the resort and the matter is now pending before the North Gauteng High Court.

In the meantime ZambiBush remains open and thousands of children are still regularly bused-in from across Gauteng to the waterpark.

The situation has left Deon du Toit feeling completely powerless. He says he cannot understand why Tshwane did not act swiftly against the illegal resort nor has it done so for more than five years. “If I run even a small business from home without having municipal authorisation, Tshwane will close me down quickly, but this is a massive commercial concern that is allowed to stay open while children’s lives are at risk.”

Operating without compliance to the national building regulations is only one of several violations of which ZambiBush stands accused. The Pretoria North Magistrate’s Court confirmed that it had received several complaints about the resort over the past years.

The DA-councillor for the ward, Arnold van Niekerk, says ZambiBush has been in contravention of the national regulations for fire, health and safety ever since it opened but for some unknown reason its owner has always been able to dodge liability and prosecution.

Earlier aerial view of the resort

Last year Deon du Toit started his own investigation, obtaining affidavits from the parents of children injured at ZambiBush. In October 2017 a five-year-old girl who had been playing in a shallow swimming pool was sucked into an uncovered drainpipe on the floor of the pool. The child’s mother declares in her statement that she pulled her child out with force to prevent her from drowning and in the process the little girl was seriously injured. Her anus was sucked out of her body and she had to be rushed to a nearby hospital. The child is still suffering from the consequences of the incident.

A 14-year-old boy from Bronkhorstspruit, who visited the resort with a group of school children the day before Aiden’s death, says in his statement that he also bumped his head very hard while going down The Toilet Bowl water slide where Aiden was injured. He was later feeling unwell and started vomiting.

Several eyewitnesses who were present at ZambiBush on the day that Aiden died also gave statements. They all mentioned that there were no trained First Aid officers or lifesavers on duty at the resort. Sanette Badenhorst says in her affidavit that Aiden was still able to get out of the water on his own but he held his head in his hands and was screaming from pain. She says she called for help and ZambiBush employees then assisted the seriously injured child. However, they did not seem to have had basic knowledge of First Aid. Another eyewitness, Elvira Burger, says nobody tried to do CPR or knew how to fit a brace on Aiden du Toit’s neck.
A  ZambiBush insider, who cannot be identified, gave a statement saying the resort employed only two safety officers at the time of Aiden’s death and both had only completed a Level 1 First Aid course. Both were absent on that fateful day; one was on leave and the other, Bruwer Nel’s wife Melani, did not report for duty. The insider also claims that injuries are happening at ZambiBush as a result of poor safety measures at the water slides and because the equipment is not up to standard. During an argument between Bruwer Nel and another person they were overheard accusing each other of being aware of the unsafe water slide that had caused Aiden’s death.

Noseweek has established that the specialist company that builds water slides in South Africa did not complete the slide where Aiden du Toit was injured. Apparently they were not prepared to make changes to the design because it could jeopardise the safety of the slide. It is not clear who completed the construction and whether it was indeed done according to the safety standards of the designer.

The Du Toit family’s lawyer, Latham Dixon, says it means the owner knew that some of the slides were not safe but he continued to operate the resort regardless. “He must have foreseen that there could be fatal injuries, which means there was legal intention, dolus eventualis if you wish.”

However, the State Prosecutor is yet to charge ZambiBush criminally.

ZambiBush Resort - enter at your own risk

An expert in the water-slide business, who has built slides in South Africa for many years, says any resort can have water slides on its premises if the land is correctly zoned. What is urgently needed is a regulating body to oversee safety of the slides and members of the public who use them. “There is nothing like that in the country and it is not good for our industry.”

Aiden du Toit is not the only child who has died at ZambiBush. Two months earlier, in September 2017, the lifeless body of seven-year-old Bohlale Mokoena from Tembisa was found floating in one of the pools. He had gone missing the previous day while at the resort but despite an extensive search, was only spotted the next morning when his body was found floating in one of the pools.

Bohlale’s mother, Maggie Mokoena, says his death remains a mystery.  “The autopsy report says he drowned, but where and when?  We searched for him in that pool where he was found and he was not there.”

The insider, who was employed at ZambiBush at the time of both fatalities, alleges that there was no intercom system to alert visitors in case of an emergency; there were no security cameras to locate a missing child; and employees did not have any form of communication other than their private cell phones, so they had to shout to each other.

Nel is a millionaire businessman and the director of 11 companies, including two that operate other resorts in Tshwane. Waterparks are lucrative businesses and at ZambiBush the entrance fee is R100 for adults and R80 for children under the age of 12. For an additional fee visitors can book one of 34 lapas on the grounds, hold functions and birthday parties or even stay overnight.

During a telephone call from Nel to Noseweek he rejected the allegations against ZambiBush as “ridiculous”. He also said there had always been security cameras at the resort and that the police had scrutinised their footage the day after the accident.

Concerning the level of First Aid that was available, he said an employee with a Level 3 First Aid qualification had been on duty at the resort when Aiden du Toit died. He also claimed
that the resort’s staff had always been fully trained and able to assist children that were using the water slides.

Noseweek followed up by sending Nel seven questions in writing. The following are his answers that have been translated from Afrikaans:

“I place on record that the owners of ZambiBush have substantial public liability insurance and that the owners have to involve the insurers at all times and keep them informed about matters, which might possibly influence the insurance policies.

“The unfounded allegations made in paragraph 1 to 7 are incorrect. I further place on record that because you have informed me telephonically that you had affidavits that support the allegations, it goes without saying that such allegations cannot be addressed without the insurers and that these allegations can also not be addressed when you do not make the alleged affidavits available to me.

“You have also confirmed telephonically that you are aware of the pending litigation between ZambiBush and the Tshwane municipality. I am therefore not prepared to address allegations without being in possession of the affidavits because this may prejudice ZambiBush in the pending litigation. All rights are reserved.”

Noseweek has established that an 18-year-old died in October last year at another of Bruwer Nel’s resorts, Hennops Pride in Centurion, allegedly after he was injured on a water slide. The case is being investigated by the Erasmia Police.

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