Jukskei River tragedy: He put 'people's lives at risk' - residents want answers from missing pastor

  • Families are preparing to bury their loved ones who died on Saturday after they were swept away by flash floods during a baptism ceremony in the Jukskei River.
  • Phindile Masola, who is preparing to bury her 60-year-old mother and a 19-year-old relative, says she is devastated.
  • While residents of Alexandra have extended their condolences to the bereaved families, they are demanding answers from the pastor, who has gone missing.

As families in Alexandra, Johannesburg mourn the loss of loved ones who died after being swept away in the Jukskei River during a baptism ceremony, residents are demanding answers from the pastor who has gone missing.

"Death is scary, especially when it comes knocking at your door."

These were the words of Phindile Masola while making preparations to bury her 60-year-old mother, Lizzie, and 19-year-old relative Kgothatso.

The two were among the congregants who were washed away by flash floods in the Jukskei River on Saturday. They went to the river to pray, while other congregants gathered for a baptism ceremony.

READ | Jukskei River drownings: Woman traumatised after seeing her children, mother swept away during baptism

Fifteen people were washed away, and the pastor was saved by congregants.

On Thursday, Masola told News24 the tragedy had left her distraught. She said it was even more devastating because Lizzie was the breadwinner.

"We were heavily dependent on my her (Lizzie) for everything, including the children's school fees, transport [and] food. She handled it all, and now we don't know what we are going to do," Masola said.

Rescue worker cutting trees with chainsaw to clear
Rescue personnel continuing with a search effort at the Jukskei River in Johannesburg.

The pastor who led the congregation has gone to ground since the drownings. While Masola could not say much about the pastor's disappearance, she spoke highly of him.

"We knew him. We wouldn't go to someone we did not know. He is a very kind and sweet person, who was never after money."

According to Masola, the family regularly attended the prayer sessions he organised, and it was not unusual that Lizzie and Kgothatso were there when the drownings occurred.

Close-up photo of 3-month-old Snenhlanhla Renqe
Rescuers resumed their search for 3-month-old Snenhlanhla Renqe.
News24 News24

However, many Alexandra residents didn't share Masola's views on the pastor and his church, which they said they were opposed to as it was informal.

Linda Twala, a resident of Alexandra, said many people had urged the pastor to stop running the church at the river, but that plea fell on deaf ears.

"Many have called for this pastor to stop what he is doing, but he still continues putting other people's lives at risk. The entire township has been affected by this," he said.

Twala questioned the rituals performed by the pastor.

"I know that baptism is something that has been happening for a very long time, but for someone to be baptised at a river with that heavy flow of water is dangerous."

He added:

People are now angry because lives have been lost. Many want to see this pastor to know what exactly happened.

Tefo Raphadu, a ward councillor in Alexandra, echoed Twala's sentiments.

He said: "All of us are concerned. We want to get to the bottom of what happened, and the pastor is the one who can give us those details. There have been posters saying 'Ukuphi, ukuphi? (Where is he?)'. People are looking for him. He needs to be found so that he can fill in the missing pieces around this story."

Raphadu said it would be difficult to tell if the pastor was genuine or not, but fleeing counted against him.

"His actions now don't go well with him. If he was honest and this was a genuine accident, he should have been [here] to fill in the missing gaps around this story and be there to comfort the families," Raphadu added.

Search operations continue for missing people who were swept away while attending a church ritual in the Jukskei River.

Raphadu said many Alexandra residents had become fearful of the river after so many people died in one incident.

Given this horrific incident, Raphadu cautioned residents not to go to the river to prevent similar incidents.

He said: "This must never happen again, and people must stop [using that space as a church] and find a confined and safe space, because the Jukskei is not working."

On Thursday, Johannesburg Emergency Management Services (EMS) resumed its search for the body of a three-month-old baby who was among those swept away in the Jukskei River. This was the rescue team's sixth day of searching.

Rescue workers with paddle and inflatable boat
Search operations continue for missing people who were swept away while attending a church ritual in the Jukskei River.
News24 PHOTO: Screengrab

EMS member Xolile Khumalo said the search, which started at the main road, was called off at William Nicol Drive in Sandton, and that there had been no new developments.

The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) said religious communities had the right to exercise their faith and practise their rituals, including water baptism, according to spokesperson Beverley Mukhavhuli.

She said the practice of these rights had to be accompanied by greater levels of responsibility on the part of the leaders and members.

"[The] exercise of these rights and the practice of a person's faith should always ensure the protection and preservation of one's life and dignity.

"It is for that reason that the chairperson of the CRL Rights Commission, Professor David Mosoma, appeals to all the leaders and members of the cultural, religious and linguistic communities to ensure that their rituals are done in a safe environment where the sanctity of life is always paramount," she said.

Mukhavhuli expressed the commission's sympathy and condolences to the bereaved families.

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