President Jacob Zuma announced on Tuesday night that 67 South Africans were among the scores of people who died after a building at the Synagogue Church of All Nations collapsed on Friday in Lagos, Nigeria.
"I am greatly saddened to announce that 67 South Africans died and scores of others sustained injuries. This is a particularly difficult time for South Africa. Not in the recent history of our country have we had this large number of our people die in one incident outside the country," Zuma said in a statement.
Over 300 South Africans were staying in the four-storey guesthouse on the grounds of the church when it collapsed while workers were adding two more storeys. The South Africans and others were hoping to see the church's leader, self-styled faith header TB Joshua who claims to be able to cure even otherwise terminal illnesses.
"Our thoughts are with the families, friends and colleagues that have lost their loved ones in this heart-breaking tragedy. The whole nation shares the pain of the mothers, fathers, daughters and sons who have lost their loved ones. We are all in grief," Zuma said.
"As we mourn this sudden and tragic death of our fellow compatriots, I have directed the relevant government departments and entities to act with the utmost urgency to ensure that we facilitate the movement of relevant family members to Nigeria to identify the bodies of their loved ones and to ensure that we repatriate the remains as soon as possible under the circumstances.
"I would like to take this opportunity also to thank all family members and friends who have provided information to government, which information has assisted the South African high commission in Nigeria in its efforts to locate our fellow citizens. I would also like to commend all affected families for their patience and resolve during this very painful period.
"On behalf of the government and the people of South Africa, I would like to thank the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria for their support during this difficult time. We also send our sincere condolences to the people of Nigeria and all other nations affected by this tragedy."
The full extent of the calamity only dawned yesterday. Although the building collapsed on Friday and the South African consul-general and his staff had been on the site since early Saturday morning, they had not been able to establish by yesterday morning for certain if any South Africans had been killed or badly injured.
South Africans officials had learned earlier from the relatives of those at the church and through tour operators that at least five South African church tour groups were staying at the Synagogue church at the time the building collapsed.
So they suspected many South Africans were probably injured or even killed but couldn't get any reliable information from the Nigerian authorities.
"The building collapsed on Friday. How can you not know on Tuesday whether there were any South Africans injured?" one irritated official had said.
Then the full horror of the accident began to emerge during the course of Tuesday as the South African diplomats on the ground in Lagos began to get confirmation of the South African casualties.
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