The South African government did not hear from its Nigerian counterpart about the deaths of 67 South Africans during the collapse of a church building in Nigeria last Friday.
It instead heard from its own diplomats over a period of four days that the incident was “quite serious and tragic”. But Department of International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane refused to point fingers or raise doubts about the strength of the diplomatic ties between the two countries when she spoke to journalists on Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s un-South-African to get into finger-pointing at a time where we’re dealing with a tragedy,” she said. Nkoana-Mashabane also refused to entertain the reports that Nigerian authorities were denying that South Africans had died in the incident.
She said the government had worked with the travel agents who processed the travel plans of those South Africans travelling to Nigeria including the passports that South African officials could get access to. This meant that the announced number of South African deaths was based “on information at hand” She explained.
Nkoana-Mashabane rejected criticism that the government took too long to announce the tragedy. “We do have a consul general office in Lagos, so that is where we were getting information from the time the building collapsed and we had to work with Nigerian authorities … and that’s when we realised, through the information we were receiving from our own officials on the ground, that things were really quite serious and tragic,” she said.
Questions have been asked about the delay in making the announcement, with some reports claiming that the Nigerian authorities, including the leadership of the synagogue, were not co-operating with the South African government.
No stone unturned
The Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos, Nigeria, collapsed on Friday September 12 2014 killing scores of people, but the death toll has not been confirmed as rescue teams were still busy searching in the rubble on Wednesday. President Jacob Zuma announced the deaths of 67 South Africans on Tuesday evening, four full days after the collapse.
“It did not take long,” argued Nkoana-Mashabane. She said the South African government started getting information from the time the building started collapsing and added: “But this is a synagogue, on the one hand , there is a need to tread carefully and not disturb the ambiance of people who had gone to pray. On the other hand, you don’t rush to announce deaths without communicating with families, it’s not done anywhere else.”
She said “the more technical questions” should be asked at a later stage, adding that the incident happened in a foreign country, but that the government would leave no stone unturned to bring the deceased South Africans back to the country. Nkoana-Mashabane would also not entertain reports from Nigeria where that country’s authorities denied that South Africans were involved in the collapse of the church.
“I am not going to go into speaking on behalf of our friendly nation’s information. I’m sure they could focus on just assisting us to deal with this very difficult period. Let’s focus on the need of the hour, which is to focus on assisting families,” she said.
Nkoana-Mashabane said the number of deaths remained at 67 on Wednesday afternoon and that 20 South Africans were in hospital. She said there was a possibility that some South Africans could still be missing. The South African government has activated its disaster management processes and on top of the staff from the South African high commission in Abuja, who have been providing assistance to the consul general in Lagos; an advance team of disaster management personnel left for Nigeria on Wednesday and was expected to arrive in Lagos on Wednesday evening.
The advance team includes search and rescue teams and doctors to help the South African mission and to work with the travel agencies.
Nkoana-Mashabane called on families whose relatives had travelled to Nigeria or to the synagogue to email pictures of their affected relatives to an operations room that has been set up at her department to [email protected]
The department’s call centre number is 012 351 1000 for those families who want more information or to depart information about their relatives.