South Africa

South Africa

Life after listeriosis: Fighting for justice 

Carla Verlaat, 23 (Photo: Thom Pierce)

The 2017 listeriosis outbreak that killed over 200 people and caused severe illness in many more may have passed out of the public eye, but for the people infected and affected the pain still lingers and justice remains elusive.

In 2017, South Africa battled the world’s largest listeriosis outbreak ever. For weeks, health workers and scientists were dumbfounded by the outbreak, trying to treat inexplicable symptoms. They ran many tests until finally confirming listeriosis. Across the country, numerous pregnant women who had listeria went into premature labour. Men and women, who were previously fit and healthy, fell sick overnight and died within a matter of days.

Once the cause of the mysterious illness had been pinned on L. monocytogenes, a bacterium that lives in food, the reason for the outbreak had to be found. The puzzle was painstakingly put together by doctors, infectious disease specialists and health officials: all had consumed food products that had come from, or had passed through, the Enterprise meat processing facility in Polokwane between 23 October 2016 and 3 September 2018.

The meat came from a single factory in Polokwane, but the devastation its distribution sowed across the country was wide: people were presenting with listeriosis symptoms in Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Durban. Panic set in. Products were pulled from shop shelves. “listeriosis”, a word the average citizen had probably never heard before, was now on everyone’s lips as the deadly outbreak became the most dominant news story of July 2017. By December 2017, it was confirmed that Gauteng was hardest hit, with 399 cases. In the Western Cape, 84 cases were reported and in KwaZulu-Natal 45.

The widespread devastation and outbreak prompted Richard Spoor Inc (RSI) Attorneys and LHL Attorneys, Inc to file for a class action. The legal team determined four categories of claimants, many of them being mothers who themselves survived listeriosis, but lost their babies due to them contracting listeriosis in the womb.

The mothers all share harrowing stories of babies who were stillborn or lived only for a few hours and finally closed their eyes covered in red blotches and their skin severely discoloured. Some families were fortunate enough to have had a chance to bury their babies, while others had their stillborn babies taken away and disposed of as medical waste.

There are 14 named claimants and the RSI legal team is currently handling 640 claims as part of the class action. These numbers are expected to rise, especially in light of the fact that the National Institute of Communicable disease (NICD) confirmed more than 1060 cases, over 200 of which were fatal.

The legal team is taking on Tiger Brands, the manufacturer of the Polony products, in a bid to get the blue chip company to pay compensation to people who were either infected or affected by the outbreak. The compensation will cover, in some instances, medical expenses, funeral expenses, loss of wages, pain and suffering as well as a claim for constitutional damages.

On 3 December 2018 the South Gauteng High Court certified the class action, meaning that the court accepted that the applicants could represent not only themselves, but all people who can prove that they were similarly affected by the negligence of the company. Sadly though, this is just the first step. The matter still has to go to trial and that could be a long time away. The wheels of justice are moving steadily, but painfully slowly. The claimants in the matter are in limbo, waiting for answers that can only be uncovered during the trial. Until then they have no choice but to sit and wait for their day in court.

In November 2019 Maverick Citizen visited some of the victims of the Listeria outbreak so that we could help put a human face to the tragedy. These are their stories.

Antonio Julie

Alana Julie (Photo: Thom Pierce)

Two hundred and eighteen people died as a result of the outbreak. One of them was Antonio Julie.

Alana Julie lost her husband Antonio in 2017, after he contracted listeriosis. The day before he fell ill, Antonio spent the day at a family braai. “It was a beautiful Sunday, and so we decided to have a braai, he was braaiing and dancing with my aunt,” recalls Alana.

She pauses for a moment before she relays the harrowing tale of Antonio’s death. Before she even begins, her 18-year-old daughter Tamsyn is in tears.

At about 3am, Antonio started screaming, complaining of unbearable back pain. The pain continued throughout the day.  After a 12-hour wait, an ambulance finally arrived to take Antonio to the hospital. Doctors ran tests, but no one could find a reason for his pain.

Within 72 hours Antonio had gone blind, by day four he was on life support, and by day five his organs had all shut down.

“I remember lying with him and I told him that if he couldn’t hold on, he should go and that we would be okay, a single tear rolled down his face,” says Alana, holding back her tears.

Two hours later, Antonio was dead.

Before he died, Alana left his side for 10 minutes, to use the bathroom.

“When I came back, there were red spots all over his body. I first noticed them on his chest and when I pulled down his gown they were everywhere,” said Alana.

The doctors later told her that the red spots were his blood vessels bursting. A bacterium inside his body was “eating him alive”, they said.

It was only a year later that Alana and her family would learn that Antonio had died from contracting listeriosis. Her mother had read an article in a community paper that described an outbreak of the disease. She noticed that the symptoms mentioned in the article were exactly what Antonio suffered from: excruciating back pain, headaches, flu-like symptoms, and severe delirium.

Alana is now the household’s sole breadwinner and she could not afford to stay in the house the family had shared with Antonio. She and her five children, aged between eight and 20, now share a single bedroom in her mother’s house.

Alana’s children have been seriously affected by their father’s death. Although they had a chance to say goodbye to him in the hospital, his absence haunts them daily. Thirteen-year-old Lance bursts into tears when he starts speaking about his father: “My Daddy always wanted the best for us.” His little brother Joshua, who is eight, is sitting in his mum’s arms, playing with her hair.

Summer Reign

Amelia Govender (Photo: Thom Pierce)

Amelia Govender, 28, still clutches the baby clothes she’d bought for the daughter she never brought home. Summer Reign died before she was a day old. She’d been infected with listeriosis in her mother’s womb.

“We gave away everything else, but I kept these,” Amelia says, opening a box of pink infant clothes. “They remind me of her.”

Amelia’s scars are not just emotional. In spite of having been declared cured of listeriosis infection, she has severe ongoing allergic reactions she did not suffer from before she became infected. Two years on, she still wakes up with either a swollen face or unsightly welts all over her lower body.

“I wasn’t allergic to anything before. I kept a food diary to try and figure out what it was, but I later realised that I had the reactions whether or not I had eaten,” she said.

The court papers for the class action suit being led by Richard Spoor Inc and LHL Attorneys, classify four different categories of claimants, many of them are mothers who themselves survived listeriosis, but lost their babies due to them contracting listeriosis in the womb. 

The mothers all share harrowing stories of babies who were stillborn or lived only for a few hours and finally closed their eyes covered in red blotches and severely discoloured. Some families  were fortunate enough to have had a chance to bury their babies, while others had their babies taken away and disposed of as medical waste.

Andreas, ‘Miracle Baby’

Annelize le Roux (Photo: Thom Pierce)

Annelize Le Roux, 42, lost her “miracle baby”. A son that she had, despite being told that she was unable to conceive. Two years earlier, Annelize had terminated her pregnancy after learning that her baby was found to have Down’s syndrome. At the end of her termination, however, a medical mishap left her ovary damaged, and therefore unable to conceive. Being able to fall pregnant after that was truly a miracle for Annelize. “I was told I was never going to have a baby ever again, but somehow I fell pregnant with my son,” she said.

Le Roux’s previous children’s names all start with an M. They are all named after their father’s initial: Martinique, Marchand and Maryke, but her miracle baby was named Andreas by an angel in a dream. “I saw an angel bringing my newborn son to my youngest child and telling him “this is your brother Andreas”, she said.

Confirmation of her listeriosis infection came a week after her miscarriage at 13 weeks. Le Roux and her husband had done tests to determine the health status of their baby. It was only when those results came back from a facility in England that they discovered Andreas had contracted the listeria from her while she was pregnant.

Baby Shem

Carla Verlaat (Photo: Thom Pierce)

Carla Verlaat, 23, is a different woman after the loss of her baby boy, Shem, at 22 weeks. Shem lived for 24 hours before he succumbed to his listeriosis infection. By the time he passed, he was covered in red blotches and his face was grey. Carla has struggled over the years with grief. She was referred to counselling sessions to help her cope with her grief. She has attended a few sessions but on some days she still struggles.

Her pink bedroom door is darted with knife marks. On days when Carla is overwhelmed with grief she takes a knife to her door and stabs away at it until she feels better. Her husband has now moved out of their home to live with his mother. “He’s afraid of what I may do,” she says softly.

The grieving mother is in tears throughout her interview. While she hopes her relationship with her husband will recover, she is fearful of trying to have another baby. Like many of the mothers we spoke to, she blames herself for Shem’s death. “If I had known about the contaminated meat, I never would have had it,” she says.

Johan Keisser

Johan Keisser (Photo: Thom Pierce)

Johan Keisser considers himself one of the lucky ones.

The 65-year-old pensioner fell ill and was diagnosed with listeriosis. Two years after his illness he has no recollection of his hospitalisation. His wife Colleen told him that he was in hospital for 25 days, 12 of which were spent in the intensive care unit. All Johan remembers is an unusual headache at the back of his head. The next day he was unable to get out of bed. When his wife came home from work in the evening, she immediately rushed him to hospital.

“According to me, I was dead. All I can say is thank God those doctors pulled me through,” said Keisser. Since then, Johan has complained of weakness in his legs.

“There’s no pain, but it’s difficult for me to get up, I have to use my upper-body strength to get up.” Still, Johan insists that he is one of the lucky ones. “I read about people being paralysed and all the babies that have died.”

Stephen Thokwane

Stephen Thokwane (Photo: Thom Pierce)

Stephen Thokwane, 37, from Steelpoort in Limpopo, shares an eerily similar story. He too remembers nothing of his illness. One day he was in perfectly good health, the next day he felt unwell, in the days following that his health declined steadily, until he was finally taken to hospital, fighting for his life.

Within days of his hospitalisation, Thokwane lost his short-term memory, his eyesight and his ability to walk. The man who used to jog 15 kilometres in the morning is a shadow of his former self. Although he regained his sight, and learnt to walk again, he no longer runs at all as he is constantly fatigued. He can barely get through the day without feeling exhausted and he still has trouble with his short-term memory, which seems to be an after-effect thought to be  linked to meningitis caused by Listeria.

While most of the plaintiffs are cured of Listeria through a course of  antibiotic treatment, many of them report not receiving proper medical explanations for the side-effects they still experience, despite being cured of the illness. Their medical questions are just part of the answers they are seeking.

Many of the claimants keep ruminating on similar questions

Was this a case of wilful neglect? As one of the biggest producers of cold meats, did Tiger Brands take enough precautionary measures to protect their consumers? Did Tiger Brands ignore their own test results? Did they know that people would die?

Catherine Marcus, a lawyer at Richard Spoor Inc., said that while the team was preparing to go to trial, the case could be delayed significantly for two reasons. First, Tiger Brands has indicated that their discovery process, which involves the disclosure of its own internal documentation on which it will rely, and which is relevant to the matter, may take until May 2121.  Second, Tiger brands is currently trying to subpoena various laboratories, possibly in a bid to implicate other parties, and possibly to shirk sole responsibility for the outbreak. This process will delay the main court action, which can only be heard after all these matters and processes have been finalised.

Marcus said these delays were “incredibly prejudicial to the class members who are still suffering the effects of their illness, and many of whom have been unable to receive the treatment required to mitigate ongoing suffering”.

All of the people who contracted listeriosis said that Enterprise chicken polony and viennas were a staple in their households, with most mums having craved the polony during their pregnancy. Now they are terrified of the products. Despite the fact that the foods are back on the market, most of the claimants refuse to touch them; they have lost all trust in the products, constantly worried that they may fall ill again. “I ate Enterprise polony every single day, and it almost cost me my life,” said Johan.

For many of the claimants justice will be served once Tiger Brands has taken responsibility for the outbreak and the loss of lives. While money will never bring back their loved ones, they hope to find answers that can bring them closure, as they attempt to readjust to their loss and pick up the pieces of their lives.

Tiger brands did not respond to Maverick Citizen’s questions. 

Read and see the full photo essay with all the claimants here. MC



Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider
Elections24 Newsletter Banner

On May 29 2024, South Africans will make their mark in another way.

Get your exclusive, in-depth Election 2024 newsletter curated by Ferial Haffajee delivered straight to your inbox.