The death of 81 South Africans in the Nigeria church building collapse has united South Africa in anguish, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Sunday.
“These people were our colleagues and friends. They went to church with us. We worshiped with them. They were people who had hopes and dreams for their children,” he said at the Waterkloof air force base in Pretoria.
“They were our compatriots and fellow South Africans. They were beloved wives, husbands, sons and daughters. They were our brothers and sisters.”
Ramaphosa was addressing a sombre send-off ceremony after the bodies of 74 victims landed at the base earlier. The event was held in a hangar inside the military compound.
The deputy president said the families’ grief had touched all South Africans.
“To the bereaved, we wish to say that, as a nation as a people, we share in your grief and sorrow. We understand that the loss you have suffered remains unbearable and incalculable.
“Despite this, it is our hope that you will draw inspiration from the knowledge that the entire South African nation shares in your bereavement,” he told the families.
After his speech, Ramaphosa shook hands and extended condolences to the families of the deceased.
A total of 116 people died on September 12 when a guest house belonging to the Synagogue Church Of All Nations in Lagos collapsed.
Of the 116, 81 were South African, while three Zimbabweans and one Congolese national were using South African travel papers,
Twenty-six injured South Africans returned a month ago. Twenty of them have since been discharged from hospitals and reunited with their families.
Ramaphosa said efforts were being escalated to ensure that the bodies of the remaining 11 people are returned home.
“We will intensify our efforts to ensure that the bodies still in Nigeria are returned without delay,” he said at the ceremony.
Emotions ran high when director-general in the presidency Cassius Lubisi read out the names of the 85.
Paramedics rushed towards some family members who began to weep hysterically as Lubisi read out the names of the dead.
Late on Saturday night, it was announced that only 74 of the expected 85 bodies of victims would be returned to South Africa — apparently due to DNA sampling that still needed to be done by Nigerian authorities.
Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe said a health department employee died after contracting malaria while assisting in Nigeria.
Radebe said Pieter Fourie, who was a member of the medical team sent to Lagos for the repatriation of the church building collapse victims, died on Friday.
The bodies were transported via road to various provincial mortuaries before private funerals were arranged.
Four pathology service trucks from different provinces drove close to the packed hangar as the police band played the “Death March”.
Earlier, the police band delivered a rendition of the 1862 American civil war song “Battle Cry of Freedom” written by American composer George Frederick Root.
Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza was in Pretoria to receive the remains of 18 people from his province. He was accompanying the victims’ families.
“The provincial government has organised a memorable service which will take place tomorrow [Monday] at the provincial disaster management centre in Mbombela starting at 11 o’clock,” said Mabuza’s spokesman Zibonele Mncwango. SAPA