'I will never see her smiling face again': Families pay tribute to Covid-19 victims

Families and friends of 10 pandemic victims brave the stigma surrounding the disease to pay tribute to their loved ones. Their stories show the disease claims people from all walks of life

10 May 2020 - 00:00 By Sunday Times reporters
Western Cape nurse Petronella Benjamin was honoured by her community.
Western Cape nurse Petronella Benjamin was honoured by her community.
Image: Supplied

Western Cape nurse Petronella "Ouma Nellie" Benjamin returned to work after a bout of bronchitis even though her children begged her not to.

The 62-year-old grandmother and pastor died on April 29, the day before she was due to retire after 40 years of service.

Her husband, Edwin, couldn't attend her funeral because he is fighting Covid-19 in an intensive care unit.

"She died with her boots on and contracted the virus while fighting on the frontlines of the battle against this pandemic," said her brother-in-law, Rudy Cookson.

Her sons, Marvin and O'Neal, and her daughter Alicia Maart, also a nurse, said their mother fell ill a few days after returning to work, which she insisted on doing because "there are people who rely heavily on me".

"I lead by example," she told Marvin.

He said: "What I will always cherish about her is the love she had for her family. Just before she was admitted to hospital I went to see her at home and she wouldn't let me come near her.

"She said, 'Go back and be with your family'. I know now that she wanted to protect me."

Benjamin was buried on Wednesday, and whittling down the funeral list to just 50 people was painful.

Those who couldn't be there lined the streets in her home suburb, Eerste River, to salute  "Ouma Nellie".

"That was the most moving moment, to see hundreds of people making a guard of honour for my mother. The community she served loved her," said Marvin.

He and his siblings said not being able to be with their mother at the end had been very painful. - Sipokazi Fokazi

Airport security guard Masonwabe Tshambu wanted to climb the corporate ladder.
Airport security guard Masonwabe Tshambu wanted to climb the corporate ladder.
Image: Supplied

Cape Town International Airport security guard Masonwabe Tshambu, 43, who died of Covid-19 complications last month, had big dreams.

His close friend and colleague, Mzwandile Moni, said being unable to attend Tshambu's funeral last weekend shattered him more than his death.

The two worked together for 13 years, and years ago Tshambu asked him to one day speak at his funeral.

"He once said to me: 'If you die before me, I will talk about you at your funeral. And if I die before you, please go to my home in Butterworth and talk about me'. I shared that conversation with his wife this week and we both cried," Moni said.

"He spoke a lot about holiday destinations he wanted to visit. He wanted to climb the corporate ladder and be in an influential position one day.

"He was a family man first and foremost, and he loved his sisters and his mom. He was taking care of his mom after his father died."

Moni doesn't know how Tshambu contracted the virus.

"He visited my house three days before he was admitted to hospital but I was not home.

"I last spoke to him on the phone in hospital on April 10, but he wasn't himself at all. I received a WhatsApp message the following day which said: 'No more phone calls.' I thought the worst. We didn't communicate again. I then heard 11 days later that he'd passed away."

He said Tshambu's wife, Vuyokazi, was not coping with her loss.

"I am worried about her and her children [aged 17 and 3]. This disease has wreaked havoc in that family." - Philani Nombembe

International Hardware in Verulam was owned by Mohamed Asmal. The family refused permission to use his picture for religious reasons.
International Hardware in Verulam was owned by Mohamed Asmal. The family refused permission to use his picture for religious reasons.
Image: File photo

It is during the pre-dawn sehri meal during Ramadan that Amina Asmal misses her husband, Mohamed, the most.

"It's God's will. He knows best."

Mohamed, 66, died on April 15 in Umhlanga Hospital, Durban, of multiple organ failure after testing positive for Covid-19 the week before.

He owned International Hardware in Verulam and provided food hampers to those in need during the pandemic.

"We aren't exactly sure how he got it. We think it may have been from touching money. He started getting headaches, was coughing, then had fever. We thought it was probably the virus so we stayed at home and I looked after him for about five days," said Amina.

"But he got worse. He stopped eating, developed memory loss and then started hallucinating. When he couldn't breathe, I called the ambulance and we rushed to hospital at 4.30am on April 14."

Mohamed, who had diabetes and hypertension, was put on a ventilator while Amina "sat outside the hospital and prayed". He died the following day.

Dealing with the stigma around the disease, and the fact that she and her eldest son also contracted it, was as hard as dealing with the grief.

"My son wasn't able to go to his father's funeral. But we can't sit back and be victims. This is a test of our faith in God."

Amina now fears for her community.

"People are walking around and carrying on as if they don't know about the coronavirus," she said.

"I want to appeal to people to take precautions. I understand people are hungry and need to work, but if they are not careful, they will lose their lives." - Yasantha Naidoo

Drienie Dorrington was the third Covid-19 patient to die at St Augustine's in Durban.
Drienie Dorrington was the third Covid-19 patient to die at St Augustine's in Durban.
Image: Supplied

Drienie Dorrington's family feels guilty that they could not hold her hand and comfort her in isolation at Durban's St Augustine's Hospital.

Last week, a month after she died, aged 81, from Covid-19, Dorrington's family gathered at the Methodist Church on the Bluff to remember the "caring mom, granny and housewife" who loved gardening and crocheting.

Her son, Benjamin van Loggerenberg, said the memorial was held to "get closure".

"We are saddened by the way she was taken from us. The loneliness she had to endure, and I can only imagine the fear she had while still conscious. We miss her. We are still battling with our emotions around her sudden death. It is difficult to say farewell under such difficult circumstances."

Dorrington, who lived at the Arcadia Old Age Home, was admitted to hospital for a suspected stroke. She was later discharged and admitted to the Bill Buchanan Association for the Aged, a step-down facility.

She had been there only four days when she tested positive for Covid-19 and was readmitted to St Augustine's, where she died on April 2. She was the third patient die from the disease at the hospital. 

Van Loggerenberg hopes the eulogy he delivered at her memorial will bring him relief.

"It is emotional to have to do this but hopefully this will bring some closure to say goodbye and let her soul rest in peace." - Nivashni Nair

John Hlangeni dismissed body pains as part of the ageing process.
John Hlangeni dismissed body pains as part of the ageing process.
Image: Supplied

Anyone standing next to John Hlangeni for long enough could expect a sneaked sweet from the Bloemfontein pastor.

Hlangeni, 85, from the Global Reconciliation Church, died of Covid-19 on March 30.

Two weeks before, a congregant, apostle Mohau Rammile, attended a conference held by the Divine Restoration Church Ministries. This is where he contracted the virus. When Rammile and Hlangeni met on March 17, Rammile put his mild cough down to being tired.

"We joked about not being able to hug. He said he was struggling with pains. He said it was just old age. He asked me to pray for him. I put my hands on his shoulders and we prayed," Rammile said.

On March 27, Hlangeni told Rammile he was having difficulty breathing. By the weekend he was in Pelonomi Hospital.

Hlangeni's son, Gopolong, said his father "loved his family and he loved people".

"I spoke to him that Sunday. We joked a lot and he said he felt much better. Early on Monday morning I got the call that he passed on," Gopolong said, adding that his father often said he'd live to 120 and was "not the dying type".

Hlangeni's wife, Paulina, also contracted the virus but has recovered, as has Rammile.

"He joked and said death would have to ask for permission from him before he'd go," said Rammile. "When we last spoke, he told me he'd seen it all. I begged him to fight this. I joked and said if he leaves, who would give us all sweets?" - Leonie Wagner

Louis Wilsenach died alone in isolation.
Louis Wilsenach died alone in isolation.
Image: Supplied

Louis Wilsenach felt tired and went to George, Western Cape, to rejuvenate.

But the marketing and advertising guru returned home feeling ill. He dismissed it as flu, convincing daughter Mia Ziervogel and grandson Luca, with whom he lived in Muldersdrift, Gauteng, that he simply needed bed rest.

Ziervogel took him to hospital on March 27.

"After I had booked him into the emergency room I waited for two hours for nursing staff to call me and was allowed to see him for one minute," she said.

It was their last conversation.

"The last four days of his life were spent in isolation, and it was a nightmare not to be able to see him. We never thought he wouldn't pull through."

Wilsenach, 79, died of Covid-19 on March 30 in a hospital in Mogale City.

Ziervogel said her religious father taught them to "live life to the max".

His ad agency worked on campaigns for Simba, Cadbury, Jeep and Mercedes-Benz. He founded the Head Start School in Soweto for preschool children.

Wilsenach was buried next to his wife, Gretchen.

Neither of his children could attend his funeral because Ziervogel was in isolation and her brother, Len, wasn't permitted to travel. Wilsenach's adopted son, Tebogang, his grandson Max and his partner were there.

"As a man who made a huge impact on the world, who touched every person he met, it was the hardest day for my family," Ziervogel said.

"My dad touched many lives so his funeral would have been very well attended." - Leonie Wagner

City councillor Amos Komeni was looking forward to retiring.
City councillor Amos Komeni was looking forward to retiring.
Image: Supplied

Cape Town councillor Amos Komeni had a long-standing "contest" with his cousin and namesake. At family gatherings, Komeni said, his elder cousin would force relatives to call him by his second name, and they would have a good laugh.

The elder Komeni, 60, who died of Covid-19 on April 30 after 24 days in hospital, was a projects administrator in the office of deputy parliamentary speaker Lechesa Tsenoli. He was affectionately known as "Bra A" in parliament, and to his cousin he was "Bhuti".

"When I was born, my parents didn't know my uncle also named his son Amos," said Komeni.

"We called each other by our clan name, Mtshatshu, unless there were other people, then he would insist they call me by my second name, Liwadini."

Komeni said his cousin had been looking forward to retirement and "wanted to buy a smallholding around Cape Town and a herd of cattle because he loved farming".

"We could not trace how he got infected because he did not display symptoms. UBhuti was among the people who cautioned us about this virus. He emphasised that we must not roam around because Covid-19 is no laughing matter," he said.

"We are up against a faceless enemy. If the coronavirus was a human being, I would say it should burn in hell."

The elder Komeni was buried on Friday.

Tsenoli said Komeni had served his office with "utmost dedication and diligence".

"This invisible enemy has robbed us of a humble, gentle giant, a dignified professional who was a role model for many younger employees. He was a gentleman who always went beyond the call of duty. He was also an activist, and an active member of the SA Communist Party," he said. - Philani Nombembe

Cancer sufferer Daryn Mildenhall knew it was likely he would die if he contracted the coronavirus.
Cancer sufferer Daryn Mildenhall knew it was likely he would die if he contracted the coronavirus.
Image: Supplied

Moments before Daryn Mildenhall, 48, was placed in an induced coma in a Cape Town hospital, he told his wife Karen he loved her. It was the last time they spoke.

"I asked him if he was scared and he said 'no'," Karen said.

"He said he knew it had to be done to save his life. I told him to be strong."

Two weeks later Daryn died alone in an intensive care unit.

Daryn travelled to Cape Town from the couple's home in East London in March for cancer treatment. The hospital checked for the Covid-19 virus, and he tested positive.

"I don't know where he picked it up. We tried everything we could to try and make sure we were safe," Karen said.

"We always knew we had to be careful, and he knew that if he got it, it would likely kill him. I didn't want him to die alone in hospital. My worst fear became real."

Two years ago, the couple watched their baby die in hospital after being born four months premature.

That December Daryn was diagnosed with cancer.

"I watched my baby die in front me. I watched my husband battle cancer and then I watched as Covid-19 took him," Karen said.

"We had big plans. I had been with Daryn for 20 years and we wanted to build a family together."

Now she replays a recording of her final conversation with her husband.

"It is something I will never let go of." - Jeff Wicks

Ntomboxolo Mfana died after contracting the coronavirus during a visit to a doctor.
Ntomboxolo Mfana died after contracting the coronavirus during a visit to a doctor.
Image: Supplied

The family of Ntomboxolo Mfana, who died at the age of 69, want answers from the doctor who treated her and the Eastern Cape health department.

Her son, Thobela, said Mfana went for a checkup at a local doctor on April 6 after being bitten by a dog. Three days later, health officials called the doctor's patients for testing because he had Covid-19.

Mfana was only traced on April 20, and her test results took a further five days. She was hospitalised, and died three days later.

Mfana's 80-year-old husband, Mzimkhulu, and two grandchildren aged 13 and five, now also have the virus. Her grandsons were hospitalised while her family prepared for her funeral in Mamata village, outside King William's Town.

Returning from digging his mother's grave, Thobela, dressed in white overalls, old disposable gloves and a mask, said they were given three days to bury their mother.

"Only my sister was allowed to identify her body. I will never see her smiling face again. I don't know who is going to take care of my sick father, son and nephew."

Thobela said he asked his mother to get tested for Covid-19 after finding out on social media that the doctor had tested positive. The provincial tracing team found her at the clinic waiting to be tested.

He now fears that his mother, father and son may have infected other villagers.

"After her visit to the doctor she had a number of visitors. My son was playing outside. After my mother's death some villagers came to our house for a prayer," he said. "We have since stopped them." - Mpumzi Zuzile

Nomathamsanqa Banzi cannot be buried until the Eastern Cape health department's Covid-19 tests on her are completed.
Nomathamsanqa Banzi cannot be buried until the Eastern Cape health department's Covid-19 tests on her are completed.
Image: Supplied

Welile Banzi was battling flu-like symptoms at home when he learnt that his mother, Nomathamsanqa, 59, had died of suspected Covid-19 in King William's Town last weekend.

He cannot bury her until the Eastern Cape health department's Covid-19 tests on his mother are completed.

"What pains me more is the negligence by the department of health. My mother tested positive on April 20 and tested negative on April 30, but we were never informed. We visited her at Grey Hospital. She was discharged and we treated her as a normal diabetic person," Banzi said.

Then Nomathamsanqa had difficulty breathing and was taken to another hospital where, Banzi said, doctors told him she should never have been discharged from Grey Hospital. She was retested on April 30 and died on May 3.

"I have been tested and am still awaiting my results. I'm interacting with a number of people trying to prepare for her burial. The funeral parlour has been informed not to release the body until the results are known. She is treated as a Covid-19 death," he said.

Nomathamsanqa's nephew and UDM MP Nqabayomzi Kwankwa wrote to provincial premier Oscar Mabuyane about his aunt's allegedly shoddy treatment.

"We were sent from pillar to post by what seems an incompetent healthcare system, which resulted in my aunt paying with her life. The poor level of treatment at Grey and refusal to treat my aunt leaves much to be desired. They dropped the ball and it had fatal consequences," he wrote. - Mpumzi Zuzile


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