Families of victims who died when Prophet TB Joshua’s Synagogue Church of All Nations building collapsed in Lagos, Nigeria, four years ago are still searching for answers.
Among the families of the 116 victims, including 85 South Africans, who died when the six-storey building crumbled on September12, 2014 are the Mkhulisi family from Wattville in Ekurhuleni.
Exactly four years to the day after the contentious funeral of their relative, Phumzile Mkhulisi, the family are still doubtful that they buried the right person, despite having gone through three DNA tests.
Amid unsettled legal processes pursued by Nigerian authorities, dozens of affected families have not found closure and continue to be sidelined by authorities close to the investigation. Some are experiencing poverty after losing their breadwinners.
“My sister died an unnatural death, and we cannot let her story die a natural death. The church and South African government have done all they can to ignore us. One Health Department official even suggested that we cremate the body, in an attempt to discourage us,” said Phumzile’s brother, Lwandle Mkhulisi.
For almost five months, the Mkhulisis fought with the government to determine the body’s identity as they disputed certain features on it. After three DNA tests, including one that came back negative, they decided to bury the body.
“We had so many doubts that even during the funeral only a few of us cried. There was no connection. The only funeral we recognise was when my uncle and I went to Nigeria to fetch my sister’s spirit,” added Mkhulisi. He said the family seldom visited the Boksburg cemetery to perform rituals.
In his pursuit of justice, Mkhulisi has approached several offices demanding help to launch either a criminal or civil case against the church. He showed The Star several letters he had sent to Section27, the Law Society of the Northern Provinces and the SA High Commission in Nigeria.
“The coroner's findings were never made available to us. We don’t know how far they went in prosecuting the church and its leaders,” said Mkhulisi.
He is looking to partner with other affected families before approaching the International Criminal Court to have the matter investigated.
“Some families still believe in the church and others are poorly educated in terms of knowing their rights.
“Some were forced to accept bodies without even being allowed to inspect them and others accepted the church’s compensation money,” said Mkhulisi.
Philip Mbedzi and his wife Selina, lost their only daughter Mpho, 30, from Mashamba Village in Thohoyandou, Limpopo.
“It is hard to find closure,” Mbedzi said.
He said his family received support from the church.
“One cannot be happy without knowing the answers. The support cannot erase the question as to who [was responsible] if it is a human error.
“TB Joshua is always on our side but it is not TB Joshua who did that. Even TB Joshua wants to know who did that and what was the motive. Even if God allowed it [to happen], but [we want to know] who is responsible,” Mbedzi said.
Another victim, John Siboza, had gone to Lagos with the hope of finding answers about his wife Lindi, who disappeared from a church in Pretoria in January 2011.
Lindi, 55, disappeared without a trace at a service held on a mountain. Her brother Sammy Hadebe said that to date his sister was still untraceable.
“It has been tough for the family, especially their two children,” said Hadebe.
Hadebe said he still had many questions about the incident and the bodies given to families for burial.
“How do we know that we buried the right person? I am not sure about that. The families were not allowed to view the bodies, so there are still a lot of questions regarding that,” Hadebe said.
He said they had received little information from the church regarding the accident.
“We have not received any report or feedback from the church. There is little hope on ever finding the truth,” Hadebe said.
Siboza’s brother, Nicholas, said they never got a report regarding the incident.
“The report will not bring back our loved one,” he said.
Thobile Bhaku, 51, of Mdantsane, Eastern Cape, is one of the staunch supporters of the church and survivor of the tragic incident.
He escaped with a minor scratch on the shoulder when the dining hall ceiling fell on him. A beam protected him from being crushed and he spent 26 hours under it before he was rescued. Bhaku was among 136 survivors.
“I will never forget that day. I saw people that I had been chatting with a few seconds before the incident were suddenly left dead with their bodies decapitated next to me,” he said. He claims the church had been supporting him to recover from the trauma.
“I have developed a big attachment for the church and I still want to go back. I believe that is where God showed how much he loved me. I survived while a lot of people died around me,” said Bhaku.
TB Joshua responds:
In memory of the martyrs of faith video flighted on Joshua’s Emmanuel TV channel on YouTube, the prophet said the deceased “slept in the Lord”.
“We must realise that their death is an unavoidable call - a call to our heavenly home no one can disobey
“If He could forgive the people who were killing Him, we can find a way to forgive those who hurt us. When we cannot forgive, we hurt ourselves more than anyone. Nursing a grudge damages our heart,” Joshua wrote.
Despite many fingers pointing at poor workmanship as the cause of the church’s collapse, he still insists that an aircraft “flying too low over the building” had triggered the tumble.
A criminal case against Joshua, two engineers and church trustees, which started in 2015, is yet to be concluded as Joshua has kept evading appearing before court.
This week, the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya said: “We have no information about the court case.”
His boss, high commissioner Lulu Mnguni did not respond to questions.
By yesterday Kirsten Nematandani, the church’s spokesperson in South Africa, could not get information from his head office in Lagos when asked for comment two days ago.