South African Nthabiseng Zaza liked traveling and gospel music. She liked shoes, especially designer brands like Michael Kors. “She was the life of the party,” Matlhogonolo said, Nthabiseng’s 26-year-old sister.
Nthabiseng was a person who loved family above all else. She always wanted to have kids and was blessed with a daughter, Onthathile, who turns 5 this month. Matlhogonolo Chantell and her twin sister Michell Masego Zaza are raising their sister’s daughter.
Onthathile doesn’t remember much of her mother, who at the age of 35 died from listeriosis in Oct. 2018. Her death was part of a Listeria outbreak in South Africa that was traced to Tiger Brand’s polony — processed deli meat similar to baloney.
However, it wasn’t until 2020 that the family found out what had caused their Nthabiseng’s mysterious illness. They knew only that many people in the country were getting sick.
The listeriosis outbreak began at the start of 2017 and was officially declared over in September 2018 with 1,065 confirmed cases and 218 deaths.
In 2018, Nthabiseng was a new mom trying to adjust to the loss of her mother. Her partner, Onthathile’s father, had passed away before he and Nthabiseng could be married. In the two years after his death, she would lose both of her parents.
Nthabiseng had already defied odds in having Onthathile. After a liver transplant in 2009, and constant medication in the aftermath, Nthabiseng was told she had only a small chance of being able to have a baby.
She was in and out of the hospital after her transplant, constantly having her liver checked to make sure it was still functioning properly. Her sister said the family had developed a system and routine to make sure Nthabiseng stayed healthy.
“At a certain time, she takes her meds. She exercises and drinks water. We take a walk in the park. And we pray a lot,” Matlhogonolo said.
Nthabiseng and her family lived in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, where a trip to the hospital could take as long as three hours depending on the traffic. When Nthabiseng began to get sick, those hospital trips became more frequent.
Nthabiseng’s battle with listeria poisoning
“It was very quick,” Matlhogonolo said. At first the sisters tried to nurse her at home. “Trying to nurse this thing, it was out of control and they could not keep her fever down. And they were referring to her saying that her kidney and liver had become poison in the system. We thought maybe the liver was rejected by her system.”
“She would vomit a lot and she couldn’t keep food down. She lost so much weight. Her eyes were yellow. Her eyes were turning yellow, so we knew something was wrong and something was eating her,” Matlhogonolo said. “She had diarrhea, that wouldn’t stop. It was crazy. She lost so much weight because she was dehydrated.”
The sisters thought that maybe it was tuberculosis or asthma. But they quickly realized this illness was different. “She was not herself. She really changed. She also had these night sweats, like these cold sweats, and we couldn’t understand. And it just kept going on and going on.”
Nthabiseng was placed into a high care intensive care unit.
Nthabiseng’s family knew that others in the country were getting sick with something similar, but nobody could tell them what was going on. “The hospital and everything and nobody really knew what was making us sick,” Matlhogonolo said. “And we really didn’t understand.”
Nthabiseng died Oct. 16, 2018, one month after the outbreak had been declared over.
It took until 2020 for a law firm in South Africa to connect the dots and tell Matlhogonolo and her sister what happened to Nthabiseng and that it was connected to the Tiger Brands outbreak. “We found it out this last year what really happened. What really caused it.”
“They found our names in the files and that we could be compensated if we pursued them. I mean we didn’t know, because we were just trying to bury our sister and find our lives,” Matlhogonolo said. The family in a matter of years had gone from six at home to three.
“The year before both of our parents died and then our sister died, so a lot of things had happened. Our main focus was for us to like to find our feet. Try to find food. Try to make this baby go to kindergarten. My twin and I were like 24. It was too much to take in. So we just had to grow up.”
Life after Nthabiseng’s passing
Matlhogonolo wishes Tiger Brands officials had come forward as soon as the outbreak happened. She wishes the multinational company would compensate people and make the public aware that the outbreak was its fault. But she isn’t angry at Tiger Brands. “It’s not good for us to hold onto rage or anger. We understand that things do go wrong in life. But I am disappointed that a big brand like them has never stepped out and looked for people that have had their lives damaged. A lot of people lost their loved ones.”
“You can imagine as young as we were having no one to rely on, living in a society where they aren’t supporting young black women is really hard. It is a struggle.”
“Knowing that Tiger Brands have done something like this, and they have never come out and said that they are sorry. And really show remorse and compensate. I am really disappointed in their brand. I would say I am disappointed, but I am just praying that justice is going to be served.”
“What I am crying for is her child. She deserves quality education. She deserves quality life. I am being like 26 there are still a lot of things that I need to do for myself and for if I grow old. And being a student like I am, they didn’t think about how people like us really need to be taken care of.”
“They should make amends for the mistakes.”
More background information about the 2017-2018 South Africa Listeria Outbreak can be found here.
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