A flash flood along Johannesburg's Jukskei River claimed lives on Saturday, 3 December, and church congregants were swept away during the baptism ceremony. Emergency Services arrived on the scene and reported that eight more people might be missing.
"We recovered two bodies yesterday and another seven today," Robert Mulaudzi, Johannesburg Emergency Services spokesman, told the media on Sunday.
Thirty-three congregants gathered on Saturday along the riverbanks of Bramley Park outside Johannesburg when a sudden storm caused flash floods and strong currents. Church-goers frequent the river, which runs along many townships, including Alexandra in the east of Johannesburg, to conduct rituals like cleansings and baptisms.
December is a time of frequent and often heavy rainfall in South Africa; therefore, citizens must be mindful of their safety around bodies of water, as storms and flash floods are expected at this time of year.
"We have been receiving a lot of rain on the city of Johannesburg in the last three months and most of the river streams are now full. Our residents, especially congregants who normally practice these kinds of rituals, will be tempted to go to these river streams," said Mulaudzi.
"Our message for them is to exercise caution as and when they conduct these rituals," he further warned.
Reports indicate that family members have identified deceased loved ones, suggesting that the operation is now more of a search and recovery mission than a rescue mission. The number of recovered bodies is expected to grow as the search intensifies.
In mid-June, the bodies of a priest named Titus Mosima (36) from Abbortspoort village, Limpopo, and his congregant Noko Suzen Chaba (39) from Hlogo ya Nku village outside Steiloop, Limpopo, were discovered in Mogol River in Lephalale. The pair were also part of a baptism ritual.
A week later, two congregants suffered the same fate when they drowned during a baptism ritual in Masetheko Dam, Limpopo. Four people fell into the water, and then one of them was able to get out, EMS rescued one, but two drowned to their death. Limpopo police spokesperson Lt-Col Mamphaswa Seabi said the drowning victims had been identified as 21-year-old Elvis Ramakgaphola and 29-year-old Michael Rampa.
The Water and Sanitation Department warned congregations ahead of Easter celebrations in April. The department urged faith-based communities to avoid water bodies during the Easter weekend due to the number of deaths. Department spokesperson Sputnik Ratau said, "While we respect people's religious beliefs, it is equally our responsibility as government to alert everyone about the danger associated with baptism in raging rivers, particularly during this period. Being religious should not lead to deaths of innocent people. The safety of everyone is our priority, therefore, we encourage everyone to find alternative ways of baptism to ensure safety."