Mother of poisoned farmworker demands answers

18-year-old died after drinking insecticide

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Photo of Sebina Fortuin
Sebina Fortuin is still waiting for answers to her questions about her son’s death in 2013. Photo: Barbara Maregele

On 3 December 2013, 18-year-old Robertson farmworker Brendon Stevens died hours after drinking insecticide. Nearly three years after his death, his mother Sebina Fortuin is still waiting for answers to her questions about his death, which she believes was the result of his employer’s negligence.

Stevens died after drinking the colourless poison, used to spray peaches, apparently because he thought it was water.

However, the owner of the farm, Lani Marais, has refuted Fortuin’s claims. Marais says that the farm clearly marked the water containers. She says Stevens could have “knowingly drunk the poison”.

“I can never forget that day. I still cry when I think about it,” Fortuin says. She still lives on the fruit farm, situated at the foot of the Langeberg Mountains in Robertson, and works on a nearby farm.

“At about 2pm, a woman came to call me to say I have to come immediately because Brendon drank something at work.” By the time she arrived at the farm, Stevens’ condition had already worsened.

“There were two other workers standing over him when I got there. They were wetting his face, trying to keep him awake. He reacted to the sound of my voice, but he couldn’t speak. None of his managers were there,” she says.

Stevens was rushed to Robertson Hospital where he died several hours later.

Western Cape provincial police spokesman FC Van Wyk said a post-mortem into Stevens’ death had found he had died of “unnatural causes or circumstantial evidence consistent with poison.”

Fortuin says it was the responsibility of her son’s employers to store and lock the poison in a secure place.

“No one ever asked them why the poison wasn’t locked away in a storeroom. The workers’ water was usually in the same containers as the poison. They usually rinsed out the cans and used them to put water in,” she said.

Fortuin says the farm owners bought proper water containers after Stevens’ death.

Marais told GroundUp: “All our containers are clearly marked. We have rules on the farm and they need to be followed for a reason. What happened was really sad, but it wasn’t our fault.”

In an attempt to submit a Workers’ Compensation claim, Fortuin hired lawyer Werner Thomas of Elton Shortles Attorneys in Worcester, but the case was dropped.

Fortuin received a letter on 20 July last year from the attorneys’ offices saying she owed R1,719 for services rendered.

According to the Socio Economics Rights Institute, Fortuin was later told the matter would be brought before the Small Claims Court in Worcester.

When contacted by GroundUp this week, Thomas said that the case “was closed,” but refused to comment either on the case or on the Small Claims Court claim without written consent from Fortuin, citing lawyer-client confidentiality.

Jo-Anne Otto, spokesperson for the Department of Health’s Cape Winelands District, has urged everyone working with poisons to do so responsibly.

“Accidental ingestion of poison does occur among farm workers. However, according to the hospital, most patients recover fully,” she said.

“We would like to remind all people who are in contact with poisons that it is very important that they are stored in clearly marked containers and locked away in a store room,” she said.

TOPICS:  Farming Health Human Rights Labour

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