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Tributes paid to ‘visionary’ SA victim of Nairobi siege

James Thomas (57) was a millionaire in his capacity to care for and love others, said a childhood friend of the South African businessperson who was shot dead in the al-Shabab attacks at the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, over the weekend.

"He felt like a brother to me. My heart is broken and I want to call him but I catch myself in the awful realisation that he is actually gone," said Margie Worthington-Smith.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Worthington-Smith described Thomas – an enterprise development specialist – as a go-to guy who was benevolent and a strategic thinker.

Friends and family have described the death of Thomas as "a big tree in a forest cut down for no reason". 

"He was an encourager, and a thorough entrepreneur. He had wide interests and a passion for development as well as a complete intolerance for poverty and unemployment," said Lauren Potgieter, on behalf of the family.

Thomas was married to Colleen (56), a local teacher and musician, for 33 years, and the couple have two daughters, Sarah (28) and Julie (19), a student at the University of Cape Town. His wife remembered him as a "creative visionary, determined to see people flourish and reach their goals. He knew how to love fully, and so without reserve."

Thomas in Kenya
As an entrepreneurship skills developer, Thomas had been sub-contracted as a consultant to train a group of Kenyan entrepreneurs.

While in the country, he was shopping in the mall with friends and colleagues. "According to his friends, he wandered away from the group after checking out the supermarket. It was at this time that the shooting started," said Adam Smith of Adam Smith International, the company that Thomas was consulting for.

Reverend Dave Meldrum, the initial spokesperson for the family, added: "In the subsequent chaos, James was separated from his friends – who took shelter for a while and then managed to find their way out of the mall. We spent Saturday and Sunday morning agonising as we depended on James's friends for news, but they could not find him. They later identified his body in a morgue and called us on Sunday around 12.30pm with the terrible news."

Developing the youth
Thomas spent most of his life developing training programmes and modules for young entrepreneurs in South Africa and around Africa. He was a founding member of many developmental organisations, including Activate, a network of young leaders equipped to drive change for the public good.

Still shocked by Thomas's death, chief executive for Activate Chris Meintjes said: "James was responsible for nurturing and growing over 10 000 youngsters."

"It is sad to realise that we live in a time when such a magnificent and generous man can be gunned down so senselessly," said Meintjes.

Thomas is the founder of the Triple Trust Organisation, which according to its website "is a South African not-for-profit organisation committed to the alleviation of poverty in South Africa through making markets work for the poor".

Thomas was also part of the creative development and implementation team for the Kenya Markets Trust, which aims to make markets work better for the poor in key agricultural markets and basic service sectors, predominantly in rural areas of Kenya. 

Dirco visits family
Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Marius Fransman visited the family on Sunday afternoon but the details of their discussions remain unknown.

The Cape Town Youth Choir also visited the family on Sunday evening to honour James, who was the choir's chairperson. He was also a church warden at St Peter's Church in Mowbray, Cape Town.

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Khuthala Nandipha
Khuthala Nandipha is a journalist for the Mail & Guardian. This involves writing about various social issues that develop and change on an hourly basis. Her interests are, in a nutshell, how South Africa and the world’s revolution affect the person on the street: “the forgotten voting citizens”, as she calls them. She loves writing, and taking photos as a way to complement her stories. She grew up on the south-east coast of East London in the Eastern Cape. She studied journalism at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. She is not new to Jo’burg, having spent the first eight years of her journalism career working for various newspapers and magazines there.

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