Johannesburg: As many as 300 South Africans were visiting a Pentecostal church in Nigeria last week when a building in the compound collapsed, killing more than 60 people, and an unknown number are still unaccounted for, the government said on Wednesday.
President Jacob Zuma said at least 67 South Africans died in Friday`s accident at the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos and described it as one of the worst tragedies in South Africa`s recent history.
The collapse occurred when three extra stories were being added to the existing two of a guest house of the church compound.
Led by the charismatic "Prophet" T.B. Joshua, the Pentacostal church attracts a global following of Christians who believe Joshua is able to perform miracles including curing the ill and raising the dead from the grave.
Zuma`s tally conflicted with that of the Nigerian emergency services who late on Tuesday put the overall death toll at 62. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.
Members of the church had at first prevented emergency officials from participating in the rescue, making it difficult to establish a toll for the injured and dead, originally estimated at 41. State rescuers were allowed in on Saturday.
Pretoria described the search and rescue operation as "very fluid" but defended the credibility of its count of 67 dead, saying it was based on records and information on the ground from five tour groups that had arranged for South African worshippers to go to Lagos.
"This number is based on credible information," foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela said.
Late on Tuesday Zuma told the SABC national broadcaster that an unknown number of South Africans were "not yet accounted for" and that the nation needed to "grieve together."
Spokesman Mac Maharaj later said the government believed around 300 South Africans from four to five groups were visiting the church on Friday but it was not clear how many were on the spot when the tragedy struck.
"It`s a very popular church with South Africans," Maharaj said.
The regular influx of visitors from abroad for the church`s services, which can last up to a week, creates demand for accommodation that the church`s own guest house has been unable to meet, and often spills over into local hotels.