Church collapse: SA, Nigeria politics delay return of bodies

Secrecy and bureaucratic red tape still shroud the repatriation of the remains of South Africans who were killed when a part of Pastor TB Joshua’s controversial Synagogue Church of All Nations crumbled to the ground – 144 days ago.

Now the families of 11 of the 86 South Africans killed in what is dubbed as “the biggest tragedy since democracy” remain in limbo as they do not know for certain if the remains of their loved ones would be on board the South African National Defence Force C130 aircraft when it is expected to touch down in the early hours of Thursday.

On Monday, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe announced that “the long wait for these families, friends and communities is finally over”. 

But Radebe could not give any other answers.

  • How many bodies will be returned?
  • What are the names of the victims to be repatriated?
  • Are the bodies still intact?
  • What really caused such a lengthy delay?

On September 12 2014 a multi-storey guesthouse belonging to Joshua’s church collapsed and killed 150 people, 85 of whom were South Africans.

It took two months for the majority of the remains to be repatriated and at the time, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa assured affected families of the remaining 11 eleven victims that the bodies would be brought home “as soon as possible”.

Radebe announced that a South African repatriation team would be en route to Lagos to “bring the mortal remains of those that have been positively identified”.

“Only when our team reaches there will we know precisely how many South Africans will be repatriated,” he said. 

Radebe thanked Nigerian authorities for the “cooperation accorded to us during the identification and repatriation of the injured and deceased South Africans”. 

A blocked arms sale 
However, one cabinet minister told the Mail & Guardian that the delay in the repatriation of the bodies was a result of soured relations between South Africa and Nigeria.

The minister, who is not authorised to speak on this matter, said there was more to the repatriation delay than what government would be willing to communicate. 

In November last year, the M&G reported that Radebe stood accused of bartering with Nigeria to secure the return of the bodies by promising he would ensure that an arms sale worth $9.3-million (about R100-million), which had been blocked by South Africa, would proceed.

The M&G has seen two letters that Radebe wrote to JP “Torie” Pretorius, of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations (the Hawks), and Dumisani Dladla, the head of the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) secretariat, in which Radebe seeks to assist the Nigerian government to get the weapons. 

Nigeria apparently wanted the arms, including helicopters and ammunition, to fight against the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram.

Government categorically denied this.

Radebe said the delay was due to rescue workers not gaining access to the site and climatic conditions in Nigeria.

“It is common cause that when the incident happened in Lagos… it took three days before rescue workers went to the site,” he said.

Government not responsible for delay
Radebe said government was in constant contact with the families of the deceased.

“The families have a right where they see fit to institute civil proceedings against anyone they feel is responsible for deaths of loved ones… (But) government is not part of that,” he said.

When the C130 aircraft touches down at the Air Force Base Waterkloof in the early hours of Thursday morning, the remains which government would be able to positively identify would be transported to government mortuaries.

And while some of the victims’ families would be able to say their last goodbyes, uncertainty persists over why it took six months for their bodies to be returned.

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