on assignment: south africa

Johannesburg — A woman whose daughter died due to listeriosis weeks after she had a miscarriage has described her as the sunshine in their lives.

Sonette Clack was 32 years old when she died in December 2017. At the start of that month, she was admitted to Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria. A few weeks before she had lost her baby at 12 weeks pregnant due to listeriosis.

Tanja Clack, the mother of Sonette, told Food Safety News that she still goes through stages of anger, crying, and heartache.

“The pain I cannot describe and the actual loss of my daughter, I don’t know how to deal with it, she was the sunshine of our lives, she was always laughing, she was always making jokes, she was such a sweetie-pie and the way she died, I cannot forget the pain she went through,” she said.

“She had a bird, his name is Dingo, for about two years, she taught this bird to talk and each time I go to Pretoria this bird is there and just talking and I can hear the voice in this bird, that is Sonette. She was a very friendly person, she loved to play with the kids. She was very energetic, she would go camping, catch fish, she was a lovely person and loved to draw pictures.

“My mind is always busy with couldn’t I do something for her? I couldn’t because I didn’t even know it was listeriosis but the actual brutality of the way she died, what listeriosis did to her. She got meningitis but that was the hardest time for me ever, the next time when I was at my child she was brain dead, I battled to get over that and when she was brain dead I knew she was not going to talk to me ever again.

“I went to her at every visiting hours and I was even feeling her heartbeat, there was nothing else but her heartbeat but for me to feel the heartbeat she was still alive. I cannot forget the things she went through and the pain, every time we visited her she said ‘Mommy my head, I can’t take this anymore, help me’ and that was very hard for me to take.”

The Listeria outbreak in South Africa during 2017 and 2018 infected more than 1,000 people and 200 deaths were linked to polony, ready-to-eat processed meat, made at a factory in Polokwane by Enterprise Foods, which is owned by Tiger Brands. Polony is similar to baloney sold in the United States.

How goodbye turned into a farewell

Sonette Clack

Tanja, who lives alone in Durban while the rest of the family are in Pretoria, said the health department called her in December to ask about her daughter’s health before she got sick and told her Sonette had listeriosis.

“At the time she was admitted to hospital on December 1, 2017, there was an outbreak of listeriosis but we didn’t know about it because although they did the tests on my daughter they only let us know on December 8,” she said.

“When she was admitted in the hospital they phoned me from Pretoria while I was in Durban and asked me why is my daughter not talking to them and I couldn’t understand the meaning of this. I thought is there something wrong with Sonette? I was still at work waiting for them to tell me what was wrong. That night they said they would let me know and they didn’t.

“The Saturday I was in a state and I couldn’t take it anymore. I got into my car and went there, I only got there Saturday night at 9:30 pm and they didn’t want me to see her and I said I was coming from very far. She was unconscious. Then I left, Sunday we visited again, we were there every visiting hours, and Sunday afternoon she gained consciousness and they did test her for meningitis and then the Monday the test came out and they said because of the listeriosis she had bacterial meningitis.

“One night when we saw her she was actually, I could see the pain, but she was laughing and making a joke, just to say goodbye, never did we know we were actually saying farewell. But the next day she was brain dead. I know one day it will be ok and she is in a better place but whatever you say cannot take away the pain, there are no words to explain and make it better.

“By the time we knew it was listeriosis it was too late. She phoned for the ambulance to take her to hospital but by the time she got there she was unconscious. We thought actually she was going to get better because the Sunday afternoon she gained consciousness, she was talking to us but on December 6 in the morning they said she had a heart attack and when we got to her she was brain dead in ICU.”

Tragedy of miscarriage

In Mid-November, weeks before being admitted to hospital Sonette had lost her baby at 12 weeks pregnant.

“Unfortunately they didn’t do any tests on the baby to see why she had a miscarriage. My daughter cried a lot, they were very excited about this baby. After she lost the baby, Sonette was not the same, she was not making jokes, didn’t laugh and was just hiding in her room. She had flu symptoms and stuff like that but it was not that bad. The family was thinking that she was not feeling well because she lost the baby but in the meantime, it was the listeriosis then attacking her body and weeks after that she died,” said Tanja.

Anke Nievaver with Armand Nievaver

Sonette also had a son aged 11 called Armand Nievaver and a daughter aged 17 called Anke.

Tanja said the whole family ate the same food and it only affected Sonette as she had a weaker immune system due to the early stages of pregnancy.

“They ate polony now and then. I have the receipt for the specific polony they ate at that time. It can take up to 70 days to get the symptoms but I think because she was pregnant it affected her quicker. It was something you put in the fridge and put a slice on your bread when you feel like eating something during the day or on the kids’ sandwiches when they go to school,” she said.

“I am not really a fan of polony, I would eat it now and then, but I wouldn’t buy it for myself. I would buy it if someone was visiting and asks me can I buy polony. I’ve got this thing of when I go to the shop and I want to pick it up I get this should I or shouldn’t I, you think twice and then you think no, this is over now. I do think about it every time, even when I go to buy Vienna when I see the polony it is like a big ridge top.”

The 59-year-old said words cannot make it better but life must go on.

“I want to say (to others affected by the outbreak), I know the pain they are going through and I can emphasize with them, I am so sorry what is happening. May God give them strength to go through this because it is not easy. It is so unexpected, you can’t believe that one minute that person is there and the next minute they are gone. We didn’t know about listeriosis at the time, you don’t know what is going on with your child,” she said.

“If we could ever prevent something like that, we didn’t know at the time what to do, but I hope this is not going to happen ever again. I hope they are going to make sure in whichever places they are making food that there is no bacteria.”

Tiger Brands must pay for mistakes

Tiger Brands must pay for the mistakes made, according to Tanja as the Listeria outbreak strain was traced to a factory owned by Enterprise Foods.

“You can’t put a price tag on a mother or a father or a child but let them pay for the mistakes they have made and hopefully this is not going to happen ever again. After they have paid the people, I hope they’ve learned a lesson through all this heart sore that other people went through and open their eyes to be more cautious of what they are doing. They have to take responsibility for their actions, this is too big, they made money out of that food they were selling,” she said.

“How many people did eat it and are lucky to still be alive. Unfortunately for those who were pregnant or for the ones whose immune systems were weak they contracted this disease and Tiger Brands was still making money.

“Who is telling our stories to Tiger Brands? Do they know our suffering? Do they know what we are going through at the moment? It feels like nobody cares. Why don’t Tiger Brands reach out to the families of people that are not there anymore? Ask us what do you need? Is there something we can help you with? I would love them to do that.”

Tanja, who has three boys and three girls and works for the South African National Blood Services, said her oldest son’s wife is struggling to cope with the children because of the ordeal.

“I am in Durban so I have to leave my job to go to Pretoria to look after the kids that is how bad it is at the moment. For me to look for another job is going to be difficult because I am 59 years old and the children are affected so much, I must make a choice, I cannot bring them here to Durban because they are happy in their schools. They went through the trauma of their mother not being there, I can’t take them out of their schools and take them to a new environment to go through another trauma.”

Tanja has previously spoken to two investigative reporting series on South African television about creating a support network.

“The family is supporting each other but there is no outside support. In the beginning, when I was talking to Carte Blanche or Special Assignment I was asking them can’t they put something out there for people that lost their loved ones. Create a fund or something, just to help the kids that stayed behind and nobody came back to me and I didn’t know how to do this on my own. I tried to do something on Facebook but the feedback I got was very bad so I left it like that in tears,” she said.

“I don’t know where to start but I will, I have to fight this, other people were telling me to leave it; I will not leave this because I will fight for my daughter that is not there, for my grandkids that are still alive. I have too, I can’t just leave this because if I am not going to fight anybody who will fight for us. My daughter can’t fight for her kids as she is not there anymore.”

Editor’s note: In early February, Joe Whitworth traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, for Food Safety News to interview some of the people who were affected by the Listeria outbreak. It’s been nearly eight months since government officials declared the outbreak over, but victims and their families continue to struggle to overcome its impact. In the coming weeks, we will be publishing a series of stories to help ensure that the public’s voice is heard.

To read more of Whitworth’s coverage about the impact of the outbreak, please see:


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