No word from SA survivors

2014-09-18 00:00

DANIEL Chetty’s family begged him not to fly to Lagos for blessings from his spiritual hero last week.

They were worried about Ebola and terrorism.

Instead, a five-storey structure at T.B. Joshua’s church collapsed as the Durban businessman ate supper inside, killing an estimated 67 fellow South African pilgrims.

Yesterday, Chetty’s sister, Diane Reddy — a Morningside nurse — told The Witness that he somehow escaped the carnage, but was being treated in hospital for unspecified injuries to his back and legs.

“I am desperate to speak to him, to know how he is,” she said.

Two other KZN families told The Witness of similar anguish, with “very little information” and poor communications adding to their concern over the status of their loved ones. One Glenwood woman said her sister, a prominent Durban North businesswoman, had texted her on Saturday to say she had survived the disaster — but that she had no idea where or how her husband was. Her sister in Glenwood has not heard from her since.

Considered by millions to be a faith healer “anointed” by God — including over one million Facebook fans — Pastor T.B. Joshua has been visited by prominent South Africans from Springbok Ruben Kruger to Julius Malema.

The Witness found that pilgrims paid tour agents around R19 000 each for the chance to receive his prophesies and blessings.

The BBC reported that at least five South African tour parties were accommodated at church guesthouses last week. Additional storeys were being added to the collapsed structure, allegedly without building plans or reinforcing measures.

Meanwhile, three South African search and rescue teams — including units that helped during the Haiti disaster — said they had been placed “on standby” yesterday, for operations that would likely focus on recovering bodies, rather than rescues.

President Jacob Zuma has stated that 67 South Africans were killed when the church guesthouse — largely housing South African devotees — suddenly crumbled on Friday. A medical team has arrived in Lagos to help identify bodies through their DNA, and unconfirmed reports yesterday suggested that another 18 South Africans remained missing.

Reverend Gift Moerane, spokesperson for the South African Council of Churches, said Joshua’s church was not a member of the council, but that individual worshippers flocked to Nigeria every month.

“We would have expected much more information from our colleagues around Africa, but there have been so few facts,” he said.

Ian Scher, head of Rescue South Africa, said a localised foreign collapse would not normally trigger a response — “but the fact that so many South Africans were involved is a strong motivation to go”.

Stevens Mokgalapa, foreign affairs spokesperson for the DA, said both the collapse and the “very slow trickle of information” demanded “serious questions”.

“In the absence of real information, South Africans are hearing stories about terrorism and planes circling the church and ridiculous stuff. What has become of the injured, and the more than one hundred South Africans stranded?”

Last year, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that Joshua’s Synagogue Church of All Nations attracted more visitors weekly than the combined number for Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London.

PASTOR Muntu Shabane said his wife Dududzile (38) was excited when she left for Lagos last week.

And it was her second trip.

A cleric at Jehovah’s Prayer House in KwaDabeka, Shabane (48) said he had to wait two agonising days for news that his wife had survived the collapse at the Synagogue Church of All Nations.

“I was shocked when I heard about the accident and I got a call from the agents on Monday that she was okay,” he said. “I am worried because today was supposed to be their last day. She is meant to come back tomorrow.”

Despite reports of unsafe building standards at the church campus, Shabane refused to blame its leader.

Shabane said he believed that T.B. Joshua was a true prophet and a “man of God”.

“He has been anointed; he heals people. That is why we go there,” he said. “I went there this year in June …”

Shabane said South Africans felt blessed after meeting Joshua, despite the costs and effort of getting there.

A GLENWOOD woman said her sister had to be “screened and interviewed” before being allowed to shell out R19 000 to visit T.B. Joshua’s church.

Yesterday, she was wracked with worry, having heard only that her sister had survived the collapse — and having heard nothing about the fate of her brother-in-law.

The 43-year-old Glenwood woman asked not to be named, as the couple’s children had not yet been notified of their status.

However, her sister is a well known Durban North businesswoman — owner of a herbal health brand.

Speaking from Durban, the woman said: “They went to Johannesburg last week Tuesday to meet the agent that organised the trip. They all left for Nigeria on Wednesday. They are not members of the church, they went there to visit the church, they went to meet prophet T.B. Joshua.”

She said her sister and brother-in-law paid R19 000 each to get a glimpse of the prophet. “The money included accommodation, return flights, meals and a week’s stay at the church which has hotels, clinics and guesthouses,” she said.

She said her sister first saw Joshua during one of his televised ministries, which are flighted on a DStv channel. “That is when she decided to go there. She applied, she was screened and interviewed and then accepted for the trip.”

DIANE Reddy was so desperate for news of her brother in Lagos that she begged the head of Gift of the Givers to intervene.

While most travelled in tour groups, Daniel Chetty (48) — a Chatsworth entrepreneur — travelled to T.B. Joshua’s Nigerian church on his own last week.

“He called me last week to say he was safely there; he sounded very joyful,” she said. “We were concerned about him going because of Ebola and the problems with Boko Haram. But he felt very strongly that he needed to take this spiritual journey; to have pastor Joshua prophesy over him.”

Reddy, a nurse, said a South African consular official told her Chetty sustained injuries to his back and legs, and was being treated at Lagos’s Broad Hospital.

Chetty asked the officer to pass on “his love”, but Reddy said the family had heard nothing from him since.

She said reports about faulty construction at the site “could be mistaken” — and that statements by the church alleging that terrorism was behind the collapse should be “taken seriously”.

“I believe God has a plan, but what I would like is clarity on how my brother is faring, and how we can get in touch,” she said.

T.B. Joshua went from working on a chicken farm to being listed as one of Africa’s 50 most influential people.

On Tuesday, the wildly popular and controversial Nigerian “prophet” took to social networks as angry fingers began to point in his direction for the lethal collapse at his church campus. He wrote: “Hard times may test me, they cannot destroy me,” on his Facebook page, which has more than 1,3 million “likes”. He posted the same message for his 110 000 Twitter followers.

Born Temitope Balogun in Ondo State, Nigeria, in 1963, the cleric was raised by a poor family. According to the Synagogue of All Nations website, he dropped out from his first year of high school and went to work on a poultry farm.

Yesterday, he wrote: “When you face trials, hard times, you can ‘count it all joy’ if you add faith. It is through hard times that you gain the necessary experience and maturity to handle whatever responsibility is given you …”

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