Families and survivors of Jukskei River drowning shocked and traumatised

A spiritual healer performing rituals at the Jukskei river after 15 people drowned due to a flash flood on 3 December. All photos by Ramatamo Sehoai

The rainy season regularly claims victims from among the people living on the banks of the Jukskei River in Alexandra but never have so many people drowned on the same day.

Congregants of a church in Alexandra township who were participating in a baptism ceremony on Saturday, 3 December, are confirmed to have drowned in the Jukskei River. A survivor of the storm surge of water described what happened with a trembling voice and teary eyes. On that fateful afternoon, Zikhona Renge, went to the river with her two kids and her mother to be baptised. She was hoping for the best, a brighter future and a more peaceful life. Now all these hopes have turned into tears and a traumatic experience.  

Her 51-year-old mother and three-year-old son are among the fifteen victims whose bodies have been recovered so far. Her three-month-old daughter, Sinenhlanhla, is still missing. “Ever since that Saturday I’ve been struggling to sleep. I can’t eat. I’ve been drinking water and some high caffeine drinks to try to have some energy. The pain cannot go away. My mom is gone. My two kids are gone. This is really heavy for me,” says the 24-year-old, visibly shattered Renge. She says all congregants were taken by surprise when a large volume of water suddenly surged down the water course, pushing and sweeping away everybody who had entered the river for a baptism ceremony. Many were rescued and treated on-site and at hospitals but at least sixteen people perished.

“It’s not like it was raining as some people suggested. Strange enough, one of the old ladies said there was a voice whispering to her that people are going to die that day. She tried to tell this to the pastors but she was ignored,” Renge says. She adds that she won’t go back to that church and the river again. Now to bury her family, she is appealing for any help as she is unemployed.

The part of the river where the baptism was taking place

To be baptised in the river is a ritual practised by mostly apostolic churches in the area. Other churches from various places outside Gauteng as far as Mahikeng in the North West province were also there performing the same ritual.  The Jukskei River is the longest water course in Johannesburg and many people in especially Stjwetla informal settlement, Alexandra, have erected shacks on its banks. Almost every rainy season there is a drowning incident but this is the first time that so many people were drowned at once.

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Another family who lost loved ones in the incident is that of the Masowes from 16th Avenue, Alexandra. Lerato Masowe speaking on behalf of the family says they are long-time members of a certain apostolic church but on that day, her mother only went to the river to fetch water to use at home. She went with her 19-year-old granddaughter, Kgothatso who sadly passed away with her when they were taken by the river. “It’s hard to accept the loss looking at how they left us,” she says. Her 60-year-old mother, though recently retired, was the breadwinner and supported the family with her pension. The Masowe family, therefore, will appreciate all kinds of support to bury them.

Another victim was 18-year-old Mahlako Bapela of Extension 8. She was doing Grade 11 at Kwa-Bhekilanga High School. Her family has since taken her to Limpopo for burial.

“From our side as the City of Johannesburg working together with our councillors and social workers, we will be providing grieving families with psychosocial support and other relevant needs. Those outside the city and the province, like that Mahikeng family, will be reached as well,” says the acting MMC of health and social development, Ronald Harris.

One of the local residents near the park where the incident happened, John Nematswerani says that by-laws once barred churches from using the park and the river for spiritual gatherings, but that churches had successfully fought the prohibition in court, citing the constitutional protection of freedom of religion and practice.

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Nearby resident John Nematswerani says that the churches fought hard to continue to use the river for baptism.

Thabo Mopasi of the Water and Sanitation Forum, a local group in Alexandra advocating for the wellbeing of the Jukskei River, says people and churches must be taught that some of these rituals and other practices in the river contribute to its pollution and contamination.

“As spiritual leaders we speak to a river first and ask for the permission. We don’t just go and dip people inside without having followed certain traditional procedures such as appeasing owners of the river or ancestors. Without doing these, a river will be very angry and punish you harshly,” says a traditional healers found in the river performing a ritual on his patient.  

Meanwhile, the city’s Emergency Management Service spokesperson, Robert Mulaudzi, warned residents that the risk of drowning is not yet over. Storms and heavy rains still pose a threat.

“We just want to urge all our residents out there, especially the congregants and pastors, while conducting church rituals along rivers like the Jukskei, to exercise caution, and make sure that all the congregants are safe to prevent a devastating incident like the one we’ve witnessed. We might still receive a lot of rain throughout the festive season so residents are urged to exercise caution. They must avoid crossing the river and streams. Young kids must be monitored to stay away from the river,” he says.

“We remain on high alert monitoring all seven regions of the city, especially low lying areas which are mostly occupied by informal settlements,” he adds.

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