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South Africa/USA: ICRC and American Red Cross reunite sisters after 50-year separation

10-06-2013 Feature

Efodia has been reunited with her family in South Africa after an absence of half a century, thanks to joint action by the American Red Cross and the ICRC, whose regional delegation in Pretoria sent this report.

Separated from her family in 1962, the year Nelson Mandela was jailed, anti-Apartheid militant Efodia Mokane spent 30 years in exile, some in a camp in Tanzania, some in Europe. She immigrated to the USA in 1994, re-married and became a US citizen. But after her husband died and she fell on hard times, Efodia decided she wanted to return home, to the new South Africa.

The problem was – how, after all this time, could she locate her two sisters who had remained behind?

Efodia approached the Pikes Peak chapter of the American Red Cross in 2012 and asked for help. A staff member helped her fill out a tracing request, which was sent to the ICRC regional delegation in Pretoria.

There, Tracing Assistant Henrietta Letlape took charge of the case, which was to prove complicated and arduous. “We visited the given address for Efodia's sister, Bapsy, only to learn that she had left that area years ago,” she said. This led to a painstaking search through the national phone directory, which put Henrietta in contact with a family in Northwest Province, who gave them an address in Soweto.

“It turned out that the family was no longer living at this address,” said Letlape,”but a neighbour put us in contact with Bapsy's sister-in-law and that’s how we finally found her.”

A letter, called a “Red Cross message”, from Efodia was duly handed over and Bapsy replied, using a Red Cross Message form, that she was willing to welcome her sister home. Until then, they had had no contact at all for 18 years. From then on the ICRC and American Red Cross helped the sisters to communicate by phone and in writing.

Meanwhile, proof had to be obtained of Efodia’s South African origins – she had no documents to uphold her claim. Henrietta Letlape collected testimonies from PAC members who had been together with Efodia in exile, to confirm that she was South African. This enabled Efodia to obtain a travel visa.

Red Cross message

Funding for Efodia’s return trip to South Africa was provided by the Colorado state social services and the hostel where she had been living. And on 18 April 2013, just a week before South Africa marked its 19th year of democracy, Efodia returned home for the first time since 1962.

"Reuniting families is an emotional exercise,” says Letlape, "the expectations are high and we hope that nothing bad happens to any of the family prior to the reunification. Waiting with them at Johannesburg airport was very emotional; it seemed like the clock stood still. I just thought, if she has missed her flight, what explanation am I going to give to her family? So when she came out of the arrival area, I cried tears of joy that she had made it.''

“We will never forget the Red Cross”

Sister Bapsy said: "I never thought such a day would come. We didn't sleep for the past three days, awaiting my sister's arrival. I was 11 when she left South Africa. If I were to die now, I could rest in peace because my sister has returned home. Thank you, Red Cross. We will never forget you."


Photos

In February 2012, Bapsy visited the ICRC Pretoria Delegation. Here she shows the only photo she has of Efodia, during Efodia's wedding. 

In February 2012, Bapsy visited the ICRC Pretoria Delegation. Here she shows the only photo she has of Efodia, during Efodia's wedding.
© ICRC / I. Edelstein

Bapsy writes a Red Cross message to her sister, to be sent from ICRC Pretoria to the Pikes Peak Chapter of the American Red Cross. 

Bapsy writes a Red Cross message to her sister, to be sent from ICRC Pretoria to the Pikes Peak Chapter of the American Red Cross.
© ICRC / I. Edelstein

Upon arrival at the airport in South Africa, a jubilant Efodia enquires about her sisters' children and grandchildren. 

Upon arrival at the airport in South Africa, a jubilant Efodia enquires about her sisters' children and grandchildren.
© ICRC / I. Edelstein

 

"I am so relieved to be back home in South Africa after so many years. I never thought this day would come," states Efodia as she looks out on Soweto from her sister's home after forty years.
© ICRC / I. Edelstein