Presidency sends aircraft to fetch remains of S Africans killed in Nigeria

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

By Chris Bathembu

Lagos - It’s been almost two months of pain, anguish and uncertainty and South Africa has been thrown into an indefinite mourning period. But the wait is almost over for the families of the more than 80 South Africans killed when a building collapsed at the famous Synagogue Church of All Nations, in Lagos, in September.

President Jacob Zuma has authorised the procurement of two aircrafts to Nigeria this coming weekend to help with the repatriation of the mortal remains of those who were killed in the building owned by popular Nigerian Pastor TB Joshua.

The Presidency’s Director General Cassius Lubisi confirmed in Lagos on Wednesday that the aircrafts will leave South Africa on Friday. One aircraft will be carrying about 80 service specific officials who will help to prepare the bodies for their journey to Pretoria. The second aircraft will have the mortuary trucks that will carry the bodies to the Waterkloof Air force base where an official handover ceremony will be held.

Lubisi said the final identification of the bodies, securing of death certificates and embalming certificates should now be top priority in the next few days.

Phumla Williams, spokesperson for the Inter-ministerial Committee tasked to deal with the Nigerian tragedy, also said the preparatory work to return the bodies to their families this weekend was at an advanced stage and there was no turning back.

“We are moving to the second gear of getting ready to repatriate. We can confirm that the two planes have been procured and will be dispatched to Lagos to collect the remains. We trust that by the end of this week, we will bring closure to this painful issue,” Williams said.

Since the tragic incident on 12 September, the process of repatriating the bodies of the victims has been an intricate one, with the South African diplomats in Nigeria having endless meetings with their counterparts in Abuja to fast-track the return of the remains to South Africa. In the past few weeks, Nigerian authorities have been busy with post mortems on all 116 people, who died in the tragedy, and the process has taken longer than expected leading to much panic in South Africa.

In a bid to speed up the process, President Jacob Zuma last week appointed Minister in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, as South African Special Envoy to meet with Nigerian Federal Government and Lagos State authorities. Minister Radebe, who is in Lagos, has already met with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to discuss the repatriation. On Wednesday, Minister Radebe was scheduled to meet with Lagos State Governor Babatude Fashola.

Families need closure

Williams said the government understands the pain the families have been going through since the tragic event and that government had put measures in place to support affected familes. Social workers from the Department of Social Development continue to visit families to provide them with updates and psychosocial support.

“At this point we should take the opportunity to thank the families for their patience and the dignity they have observed this moment with. All of us, we are saying it’s been a long two months. It has been an extremely difficult waiting period. This week we can confirm that these families will get hold of the remains of their loved ones and be able to move on with their lives.”

Ceremony at Waterkloof

The receiving ceremony at the Waterkloof airbase is expected to be a sombre occasion. President Zuma and the Inter-Ministerial Task Team will be at Air base on Sunday when the mortal remains are returned. Social workers will be deployed to help the families and the President will meet with the individual families before a formal reception is held in the morning. Only family members of the deceased and invited dignitaries would be in attendance.

Government will thereafter transport the remains back to the home provinces of the next of kin where provincial government officials will further assist the families with the help they may need. Most of the bodies are said to have reached the severe stages of decomposition and government says the well-being of the next of kin is of primary concern and therefore family members are being discouraged from viewing the mortal remains as this may trigger secondary trauma.

Probing the tragedy

An inquest into the deaths began in mid-October in Nigeria with several witnesses called to testify.

Those who live nearby the collapsed building, which was used as a Guesthouse inside the church’s premises, told SAnews on Wednesday that the collapsed structure was initially a two-storey building before the church decided to add four additional floors on it. The matter has divided the Christian-dominated Lagos population, with some supporting TB Joshua and his church, while others are blaming him for the incident.

After the tragic incident, Joshua brought up claims that a mysterious aircraft was hovering above the church compound in the minutes preceding the tragedy. But this has been disputed by experts in Nigeria who have been investigating the incident.

The South African government is not playing any role in the investigations because this matter falls within the Nigerian legal jurisdiction. But Pretoria says it stands ready to provide support to its Nigerian counterparts with their investigations should there be a need. –