Fourteen Members of Church Congregation Drown During Cleansing Church Service in Johannesburg
Rescuers retrieving bodies from the Jukskei River in Johannesburg where 14 congregants at a church ritual cleansing service were swept to their deaths

Fourteen members of a church congregation tragically drowned in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Saturday after a huge flash flood, with a surge wave over two feet high, torrented down the Jukskei River as they performed a cleansing ritual.

Fourteen Members of Church Congregation Drown During Cleansing Church Service in Johannesburg
Rescuers retrieving bodies from the Jukskei River in Johannesburg where 14 congregants at a church ritual cleansing service were swept to their deaths. To use any of the text or photos, please contact Jamie Pyatt News Ltd.

The deluge washed 33 terrified worshippers away in seconds – many to their deaths. Most were standing on rocks or in ankle-deep water in the murky river, near a township, where a pastor who survived the flood was performing a church service to cleanse his flock.

The religious group from a church in the township of Alexandra were taken by surprise and washed to their deaths after heavy rains up the river caused the unstoppable torrent.

Fourteen Members of Church Congregation Drown During Cleansing Church Service in Johannesburg
Rescuers retrieving bodies from the Jukskei River in Johannesburg where 14 congregants at a church ritual cleansing service were swept to their deaths. To use any of the text or photos, please contact Jamie Pyatt News Ltd.

The weekend tragedy happened in the debris-strewn river which saw a number of the group manage to scramble to higher ground, but those caught by the current were swept away.


Rescue efforts continued over the weekend and will resume this morning, Monday, for two members of the congregation who are still listed as missing by their families.

An eyewitness told local media: “The river was as usual, then there was suddenly a very loud noise from upstream and this half-a-metre high wave of water just came at us all.

“There was screaming and panic and then many were just gone,” she said.

City of Johannesburg Emergency Management Services spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi confirmed 14 bodies had been recovered up until Sunday night.

He said: “The total number of bodies recovered on Sunday is 12 and including 2 that were discovered on Saturday makes a total of 14 dead in this drowning incident.

“The search will resume today and we’ve got some areas that we still need to explore which might also add to the 14 bodies we have, so the death toll could rise.

“We think there is one maybe two people still missing and we are hoping we may recover them if they have indeed drowned so that we can bring closure to families.

“These sorts of religious ceremonies are common along the river and we had put out a warning to residents previously about the danger of such rituals along the river.

“We have been receiving a lot of rain over the city of Johannesburg in the last three months, and most of the river streams are full of risks of flash flooding.

“Our message to congregants who normally practise these kinds of rituals and are tempted to go to river streams, is to exercise caution when they do so,” he said.

Many of the congregants who were washed down the Jukskei River were trapped under debris in the polluted waters and drowned, unable to extricate themselves.

Others were washed a long way downstream and may have been swept down storm drains or along tributaries.

This morning it was revealed that three of the victims were adult males, eight were adult females, one was a male child, one was a female child and the 14th victim was a female toddler.

Congregations often gather along the banks or in the waters of South African rivers to conduct cleansing or baptism rituals and drownings are often reported.

In June four people drowned at a baptism ceremony in Limpopo Province and last month the Water and Sanitation Department warned against such ceremonies.

Religious groups frequently gather along the Jukskei River, which runs past townships such as Alexandra in the east of Johannesburg, in large groups at weekends.

Dozens of rescue workers and firefighters are still searching for the missing people with emergency services indicating the chances of finding them alive are remote.

Spokesman Mr Mulaudzi said: “Our only hope is that they may have got out of the river themselves and returned home unaware that we are searching for them.”

Sudden surges of water are common in this part of Johannesburg where storms take place almost every night during the southern summer, causing major flooding.

Mulaudzi said people have free access to rivers and to practise their religion where they wish, but danger awareness campaigns need to be intensified in the future.

Mulaudzi also shared a video of rescue teams walking through the river and along the banks in search of the victims after the floodwaters had returned to normal.

Victor Ncube who had been taking part in the church service told local news station eNCA that he managed to pull five people out of the flood water to safety.

Others had been carried too far down the river for him to try to save them, he said.

To use any of the text or photos, please contact Jamie Pyatt News Ltd.