The bodies of 74 South Africans, killed when a church guesthouse collapsed in Nigeria in September, arrived home on Sunday, with South Africa looking to ease diplomatic tensions that flared after the disaster.
A cargo plane carrying the bodies flew into a military airforce base in the capital Pretoria, and a somber reception ceremony, shown live on television, was held in a hangar, attended by grieving families and politicians.
The building collapse at a church compound run by popular preacher T.B. Joshua killed 116 people, 81 of whom were South Africans. The identification process is still continuing, meaning that not all the South African bodies were repatriated.
The Sept. 12 disaster was the worst suffered by South Africans on foreign soil since the end of apartheid in 1994 and sparked a diplomatic spat with Nigeria.
Pretoria accused Lagos of not doing enough to investigate the accident and said Nigerian authorities did not react quickly enough to rescue those trapped under the rubble. It also complained that Nigeria took too long to release the bodies.
South African President Jacob Zuma sent a team of ministers to Nigeria to push for swifter repatriation, but on Sunday, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa played down the dispute.
“This tragedy has reinforced the warm and fraternal relations between our two countries,” he said.
However, ordinary South Africans and relatives have been scathing of Joshua, one of Nigeria’s most influential evangelical Christian preachers, and have urged their government to take a tough line with the Nigerian authorities.
“I call on the affected families to unite and advocate for the suspension of what’s left of the diplomatic ties between Nigeria and South Africa,” Thanduxolo Doro, whose sister died in the tragedy, said in an open letter.
A court inquest into why the building collapsed is underway in Nigeria.