This is a stunning piece of both journalism and photo journalism by Nomatter Ndebele and Thom Pierce of the Maverick Citizen
Thank you for taking the time to tell these peoples’ stories.
The victims of the 2017 listeriosis tragedy and the surviving families of those who died are taking on Tiger Brands in an effort to win some form of justice and force some form of accountability. A Maverick Citizen team travelled to all four corners of South Africa to tell the stories of the claimants who are fighting back. (see more on the status of the class action and Marler Clark’s role at https://listeriaclassaction.co.za/)
Alana Julie, 37
Alana Julie with her children (L-R) Jayden, Joshua, Lance, Tamsyn and Caitlan; in their bedroom at Alana’s mother’s house in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town. In 2017 Alana’s husband, Antonio, died from listeriosis at the age of 42. (Photo: Thom Pierce)
In 2017, Alana Julie lost her husband, Antonio. He died a gruesome death. He was in excruciating pain from the moment he fell ill. Within 72 hours, Antonio lost his eyesight. By the fourth day he was put on life support, and by the fifth, all his organs had shut down. Doctors told Alana she had two hours to decide whether or not to take him off life support. Since Antonio died, Alana has moved back to her mother’s house, where she shares a single bedroom with her five children. The family struggles to make ends meet, living solely off Alana’s salary, which doesn’t go very far. Her children remember their dad as an ever-present father who used to play the guitar and sing songs to them. A few weeks ago, their house was broken into and thieves stole Antonio’s guitar, devastating his eldest son Jayden.
Carla Verlaat, 23
Carla Verlaat at home in Manenburg, Cape Town. At 22 weeks pregnant, Carla lost her baby, Shem. He was diagnosed as having listeriosis. (Photo: Thom Pierce)
Carla Verlaat lost her first baby in 2017. She went into premature labour at 22 weeks. Her son Shem only lived for 24 hours before he died. The doctors told Carla her baby had a clot in his brain and he was later diagnosed with listeriosis. Carla cries as she speaks about the pain of her milk running out of her breasts intended for a baby who had died. She has a single picture of Shem on her phone. He is lying in an incubator, with many pipes attached to his fragile body, his face a dark grey. Since Shem passed away, Carla has battled with her grief. Despite having gone to therapy, she still struggles to manage her mood swings. Sometimes she stabs her bedroom door with a knife, in an attempt to find some kind of release. She blames herself for Shem’s death and is too afraid to have another baby.
Annelize le Roux, 42
Annelize and Martin Le Roux with their dog Max and their pet lion Caesar on their farm in Winburg, Free State. Annelize suffered a miscarriage at 23 weeks, their baby boy was later diagnosed with listeriosis. (Photo: Thom Pierce)
Annelize le Roux lost her “miracle baby”. The year before giving birth to her miracle, she terminated another pregnancy when told the unborn baby had Down’s syndrome. She was told that she would never have another child. Being subsequently pregnant with her son Andreas was an unexpected but happy surprise. The family was devastated when Andreas died.
Before Andreas died, Annelize’s whole family fell ill. “It was just like strong flu symptoms,” she said. Her husband Martin did not think much of his illness. Annelize, who is a microbiologist, was determined to find out what happened. So after Andreas died, they sent his blood for tests to England. The results confirmed that Andreas had contracted listeriosis while in his mother’s womb. When Annelize found out about the outbreak, she isolated and packaged foodstuffs from her fridge. When the health inspectors came to her home, she had prepared all the samples for them. This played a crucial role in assisting the health department in confirming the source of the contaminated foodstuffs.
Amelia Govender, 28, and Kyle Victor, 26
Kyle Victor and Amelia Govender at their home in Kingsburgh, KwaZulu-Natal. At one day old, their daughter Summer Reign died from listeriosis. For the last two years Amelia has suffered severe health complications brought on by listeriosis. (Photo: Thom Pierce)
Amelia and Kyle were incredibly excited for the arrival of their baby girl, Summer Reign. They both describe the birth of their little girl as the best day of their lives. Kyle, who had initially hoped for a boy, fell in love with his daughter at first sight. “I saw her and I just thought, ‘why did I ever want a boy?’” Amelia and Kyle had been thoroughly prepared for their baby. Amelia had bought little outfits for Summer Reign, she’d even got her a Louis Vuitton designer baby blanket. She became worried when her baby’s movements started to wane. That was the first sign of trouble. A few days later, Summer died. She and Kyle were devastated. Amelia has tears in her eyes as she talks about how she prayed that her baby would wake up during her funeral, but Summer was gone. Since then, Amelia has dealt with debilitating health issues. Every morning, she wakes up to a swollen face, and often her lower body breaks out in an itchy rash that leaves welts all over her. She still has not been able to figure out the cause of her symptoms.
Meryl Khotia, 38
Meryl and Shabeer Khotia at home in Shallcross, KwaZulu-Natal. At seven months, Meryl had to have an emergency Caesarean section and gave birth to a boy, Saiheer, who died less than 24 hours later. He was diagnosed with listeriosis. (Photo: Thom Pierce)
Meryl and her husband were looking forward to having their first child together in 2017. Shabeer immediately started a separate savings account to cater for the baby’s future needs. Seven months into her pregnancy, Meryl started to feel ill. She struggled with fever on and off, until the doctors told her they would have to perform an emergency Caesarean section. Baby Saiheer was born on 28 November 2017 and, as far as Meryl was aware, the baby was healthy. When her husband arrived at the hospital to see her and the baby, he found little Saiheer dead. Saiheer had lived less than a day before he died due to a listeriosis infection contracted while in his mother’s womb.
After Meryl was discharged from the hospital, she started to notice that she was getting severe allergic reactions, especially when it was hot. Her skin would start to itch badly and welts would develop where she scratched. She also described her face swelling up, so much so that she is afraid of leaving the house. “I don’t want people to see me like that,” she said.
Johan Keisser, 65
Johan Keisser at home in Forest Hill, Gauteng. In late 2017, Johan was rushed to hospital where he spent a total of 25 days, 12 of which were in the hospital intensive care unit. He was diagnosed with listeriosis and considers himself lucky to be alive. (Photo: Thom Pierce)
Johan Keisser considers himself “one of the lucky ones”. The 65-year-old pensioner fell ill and was taken to hospital by his wife. He has no recollection of being in the hospital for 25 days, 12 of which he spent in the hospital’s intensive care unit. “I took polony with cheese, lettuce and tomatoes to work every single day, and it almost cost me my life,” he said. While Johan has made a full recovery, he notes that he has a weakness in his legs, making it difficult for him to get up when sitting. He has high praise for the doctors who attended to him. “I am so grateful that they pulled me through because, according to me, I was a dead person for 20 days,” he says.
Aletta Masie, 44
Aletta Masie at home in Xihoko, Limpopo. Annette spent two weeks in hospital being treated for listeriosis after her one-day old baby died from the infection. (Photo: Thom Pierce)
Aletta Masie held her baby girl only once before she died. The infant contracted listeriosis in her womb and died soon after birth. As the baby was premature and weighed less than a kilogram, the foetus was disposed of as medical waste. She was unable to have a funeral for her child. She was discharged the same day and told to come back at a later stage to have her womb cleaned.
Aletta spent at least two weeks in hospital being treated for listeriosis with antibiotic intravenous drips. When she finally returned home to Limpopo, accompanied by her husband Thomas, her two elder children were devastated to find that she did not come home with a baby. “Losing my baby was so painful, especially because I didn’t really know what killed my baby,” said Anetta. Since the death of her baby girl, Anetta does not eat any Enterprise products. She is terrified that she will get ill again.
Christina Ledwaba, 31
Christina Ledwaba at home in Mankweng, Limpopo. Since losing her baby, Mohau, to listeriosis, Christina has managed to give birth to a healthy baby girl.(Photo: Thom Pierce)
Christina Ledwaba’s baby was stillborn.
She knew something was amiss when she noticed that the unborn baby’s movements in her womb had dwindled. She consulted the gynaecologist in Mankweng, Limpopo, who told her not to worry, that perhaps baby was “sleeping”. Not long afterwards Christina fell ill, suffering headaches and a fever. She was again taken to hospital to check on her baby.
“I knew something was wrong the minute I saw that sonar,” she said. Doctors confirmed that the baby had no heartbeat. She then gave birth to Mohau. When the baby was delivered, the nurses merely left the umbilical cord attached. For hours she lay on the bed with her dead baby under her legs.
Since then Christina has had another baby, but when she was eight months pregnant, she experienced diarrhoea and started to panic, worried that something was wrong again, but she was able to give birth to a healthy little girl. Despite good evidence that her stillborn baby’s death was linked to listeriosis, Christina still consumes Enterprise products, but she makes sure that the food is heated first.
Stephen Thokwane, 43
Stephen Thokwane at his home in Steelpoort, Limpopo where he lives with his wife and four children. Once fit and healthy, Stephen contracted listeriosis and is now a shadow of his former self. (Photo: Thom Pierce)
Stephen Thokwane is a shadow of his former self. The once fit and healthy man fell ill in December 2017. What started off as a headache and flu-like symptoms turned into a nightmare for his family.
Dumbfounded by his sudden illness, which he self-diagnosed as a stroke, the family first sought spiritual help. The family said that the prophet told the family that they needed to pray for Stephen. Stephen deteriorated and he was admitted to hospital, where he lost his eyesight, suffering severe delirium and temporary paralysis.
The man, who used to jog 15 kilometres at a time, found himself having to learn how to walk again. And while he is back on his feet, his health is still not what it was. He is fatigued, and he has lost strength. Due to this, he is no longer able to continue his work as a boilermaker, something he did part-time besides his formal employment, in order to support his family.
Thokwane is now working towards paying off a loan he took out to build a house for his wife and four kids. “After he got so sick, he was worried that he may die without leaving us with a roof over our heads, so he took out a loan to build this house,” his wife Maggi said.
Monthla Ngobeni, 37
Monthla Ngobeni with her daughter, Thetho, at home in Polokwane, Limpopo. Montlha is the first named claimant in the listeriosis class action. Thetho was born with severe health complications due to contracting listeriosis in the womb. (Photo: Thom Pierce)
Monthla Ngobeni is the first named claimant in the court papers. Her daughter Thetho, who is almost two, has undergone four operations since she was born. After contracting listeriosis in her mother’s womb, Thetho developed a condition called Hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid in the brain. A shunt that drains the fluid has been inserted into Thetho’s head in order to manage her condition and, ultimately, save her life. She will always have a shunt and it will have to be replaced periodically as she grows.
The shunt has been blocked twice so far, forcing the little girl to undergo surgery to remove and replace it. Doctors have told Monthla that Thetho’s development milestones will be significantly delayed. At two, Thetho cannot speak yet. There is no certainty of what the future holds for her.
Monthla has fallen into debt trying to manage both her and Thetho’s medical bills. She currently owes a hospital R26,000 for a hip replacement that she needed due to her own listeriosis infection.
Ephraim Chinula, 64
Ephraim Chinula, Riley’s grandfather, at home in Eldorado Park, Soweto. After his grandson fell ill along with nine other children from their creche, Ephraim rallied the community and the result has been the listeriosis class action. (Photo: Thom Pierce)
Ephraim Chinula is Riley Chinula’s grandfather. Riley Chinula contracted Listeriosis alongside nine other children after eating contaminated meat at their creche in Soweto. The stools from the sick children were investigated and led to the first confirmation of the listeriosis outbreak.
Riley, who was three years old at the time, was the youngest of the kids at the creche. They all had high fevers, stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea. The entire group was taken to Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital, where doctors were ready to receive them.
“I got the impression that the doctors knew what they were dealing with, as they had been briefed by the local clinic, so they already suspected listeriosis.”
Laboratory tests were run on the kids and it was confirmed that the children had indeed contracted listeriosis. When the news broke, the community came together and committed themselves to seeking justice for what they viewed as negligence on the part of Tiger Brands.
Tebogo Ntjana, 31
Teddy and Tebogo Ntjana at home in Midrand, Johannesburg. They lost their second daughter to listeriosis, Tebogo and Teddy are still searching for closure. (Photo: Thom Pierce)
Tebogo became very ill in October 2017 and was taken to hospital where she later suffered a miscarriage, four months into her pregnancy. The doctors took blood samples and told her that she had contracted listeriosis. Not knowing anything about the illness, Tebogo and her husband, Teddy, searched online for it and were alarmed to discover the severity of the condition. “We googled listeria … yoh, we got scared.”
Thinking that it was a singular case, they presumed that they had done something to cause the illness.
One month later, the couple heard the then minister of health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, announcing the listeriosis outbreak on the radio. The news came as a relief to the couple who would often buy polony and viennas from a Tiger Brands factory shop in Germiston. They have been blaming themselves for the miscarriage since it happened. “You blame yourself as if you killed your baby,” Tebogo said.