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Three pupils died on their way to school after an Isuzu bakkie they were travelling in overturned on Muden Road at Umzinyathi, Greytown.
Nine others, including the driver of the vehicle, were injured while two are in a critical condition in the intensive care unit of a local hospital.
One of the victims died on the scene, while the other two died later in hospital. The two girls and a boy were among 22 pupils travelling to different primary and secondary schools in the area yesterday.
The name of the dead are Thembeka Mkhize, 12 (Grade 7), and Cebolenkosi Sithole, 10 (Grade 3), from Indlovana Primary School, and Anele Ireland, 6, (Grade 1), from Greytown Primary School. The accident happened on the R74 in Muden, about 7km from the Greytown CBD.
The driver allegedly lost control of his vehicle and hit a telephone pole on the road embankment. Police at the scene said the vehicle was overloaded and was travelling at a high speed.
Superintendent Sipho Maphalala of Greytown police station said they were still investigating the cause of the accident but said preliminary reports indicated that speeding could have been the cause.
Provincial education MEC Senzo Mchunu said it was shocking that so many children had been squashed into the back of the bakkie. He said the worst thing was that bakkies were not designed to transport pupils.
"We acknowledge that some parents, for various reasons, choose to send their children to schools in towns far from where they reside, because they want their children to go to the best schools, but this tragedy could have been avoided," said Mchunu.
Provincial transport MEC Bheki Cele also lashed out at those who put the lives of children at risk by transporting them in bakkies, saying it is against the law.