Thapelo Tambani died a hero after giving drowning pal gift of life

Grieving mom recalls fateful day her son died rescuing friend.

21 April 2019 - 00:00 By JEFF WICKS


For Sarah Tambani, the image of her son Thapelo's body being pulled from a water-filled trench near her home in Soshanguve will forever be seared into her memory.
The nine-year-old deaf boy drowned in the ditch after saving the life of his best friend, who slipped into the stagnant water in March last year.
Tambani remembers visiting the scene hours after her son died.
"I just stood on the edge and I cried because I couldn't do anything else. It was dark by the time they eventually brought my son's body out of the water. He died so that his friend could live," she said.
Later this month, Thapelo will be posthumously awarded the Order of Mendi for Bravery, in silver, for his courage.
The accolade, the highest civilian award for bravery, is named for the steamship SS Mendi, which sank in the English Channel during World War 1 after being accidentally rammed by another vessel.
Having assembled on deck, about 600 black soldiers and their white officers resigned themselves to their fate and sang while the ship sank.
Talking of the day her son died, Tambani said she got the news while she was at work."I got a call from my neighbour who told me that Thapelo had fallen into the water, and my whole body went cold."I rushed home but by the time I got to the trench he had already been under the water for hours, and as a mother there was nothing that I could do for my boy."Thapelo's older brother Joseph had tied a rope around his waist and plunged into the water, trying in vain to find his sibling's body before police divers arrived.In the family home, a grinning school portrait of Thapelo has pride of place."He was such a smart boy and he did very well at school. He was deaf, so he couldn't talk, but he was able to sign."He would always help around the house and make the yard neat without having to be asked. He was a boy who would just help when he saw something wasn't right."Mulalo Muelelwa, 13, the boy who Thapelo saved, serves as a reminder of her son's courage."I know that my boy was a hero. I know it when I see the boy that he saved on the street and he is alive because of Thapelo," Tambani said.
Mulalo's aunt, Lebo Tau, said the teen carried emotional scars from the tragedy."Those two were always together and you couldn't separate them. You would always see them running in the streets and playing together. They were very naughty boys but they really loved each other," she said."That is why Mulalo was affected so much by what happened and it is not something that he ever talks about. It is something that stopped him from sleeping."Tau said the boy had changed schools on the recommendation of psychologists."It is something that troubles him. It is hard for the whole family because they were like brothers. Two boys went into the water and only one came out," she said.Arina Jooste, executive officer of the Transoranje Institute for Special Education, nominated Thapelo for the order."He was one of our boys . he was so brave to lay down his life for one of his friends. He will always be remembered for that by everyone," she said.Mulalo's father, Takalani Muelelwa, did not want a photo of his son published.

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