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Under-fire Zuma vows action on Nigeria church tragedy

President Jacob Zuma on Thursday vowed his government would do everything it can to help the families of 67 South Africans believed to have been killed in last week’s church collapse in Nigeria.

With his government accused of a tardy and inadequate response, Zuma said he had appointed a ministerial task force.

“They will support families and do whatever is necessary to manage the impact of this tragedy,” he said.

A multi-storey hotel linked to controversial preacher and televangelist TB Joshua collapsed on Friday, but it was Tuesday before Zuma announced any South African fatalities.

An advance team of 10 disaster management personnel, including doctors, only flew to Lagos on Wednesday, when hopes of finding survivors had dimmed.

Almost a week after the collapse, doubts remain over the final toll.

“Rescue missions are still continuing after which we will know for sure how many citizens we have lost,” Zuma said.

Nigerian authorities on Thursday said 80 corpses have so far been pulled from the debris.

There were a total of 349 South Africans visiting the church in Lagos at the time of the crash. In addition to 67 confirmed dead, there are still 17 unaccounted for.

South Africa has played down accusations that the delay in responding was caused by the Nigerian authorities being slow to provide information.

International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said on Wednesday that Lagos was cooperating, describing relations between the two governments as “very cordial and good”.

Rescue workers on the scene have complained that Joshua’s staff at the Synagogue Church of All Nations impeded their work.

Dubbed “The Prophet” by fanatical followers who believe he can predict the future, Joshua is politically well connected in Nigeria and beyond, counting presidents and prime ministers among his flock.

“This has a very strong religious dimension and there is a very large religious (voting) electorate in both countries,” said Andre Roux, a researcher with South Africa’s think-tank, Institute for Security Studies.

“So you have to be cautious about pointing fingers and creating negative perceptions, and making allegations or insinuations,” he said.

He also pointed at political “tensions on many levels” between South Africa and Nigeria around diplomatic rivalry at the UN where the continent’s most powerful economies would like to become permanent members of the Security Council.

Minister Nkoana-Mashabane admitted that “working together with the Synagogue people has not been easy”.

In a statement on Thursday, TB Joshua denied allegations that he was not cooperating and stuck to his theory that the building collapse was possibly caused by a low-flying airplane.