Some South Africans repatriated from Wuhan now want to go back

A view of buildings next to Yangtze River is seen in the city of Wuhan, China's central Hubei province on April 14, 2020. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP)

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) has revealed that some of the South African citizens repatriated from Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak began, have requested assistance to return to the Chinese province.

The group of 112 citizens, which included students, was the first successfully returned to South Africa as the globe grappled with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor told journalists during a virtual media briefing that Dirco had spent far less than it had anticipated on the project.

She said while Dirco was continuing to repatriate South Africans stranded across the globe, it was not willing to help those it had brought back home, who now wished to return to countries they had been repatriated from during the lockdown.

“In that first group from Wuhan, some wish to return, and we said to them it cannot be at the cost of government,” Pandor said.

“Some of them are government-sponsored students. We have said their sponsors must address it, this is something Dirco can’t help with,” she added.

She said government had no means to facilitate those who wanted to return to the country for a short while.

“We are not assisting you to come back for a short period then return to the country where we repatriated you from,” said Pandor.

Not more than R10m spent on repatriating citizens

Pandor said her department had estimated it would require R90 million. However, no more than R10 million had been spent, which she credited mostly on companies who reached out to assist government.

“We have had very good support from the private sector, with provision of jet fuel from Sasol, which has helped with a number of a million of litres,” Pandor said.

She added many of those repatriated had been able to cover their own travel costs, as most already had flight tickets but were left stranded.

“Most were ticket holders, and we were able to transfer their tickets to airlines available to provide transportation.”

Pandor said in some cases citizens were able to hitch rides at a reduced cost from cargo planes either coming to collect or drop off goods in South Africa.

Can’t compel Saudi Arabia to open borders

The minister also said the country was aware of the plight of South Africans who were in the country when the lockdown was implemented in March, who need to return to their jobs and families in other countries.

Pandor said her department was in discussion with numerous governments, as well as the departments of home affairs and transport, to facilitate the safe return of those South Africans to those countries.

When asked if there were countries not willing to discuss allowing non-citizens to return, Pandor said Saudi Arabia was not willing to open its borders.

She also said there had been some challenges with the United Arab Emirates.

“You can’t compel countries to take back persons. They will not open borders because they are compelled to do so by the South African government,” Pandor said.

“If a government says it’s in a deep lockdown, we cannot compel it,” she continued.

The minister said offenders who were recently released from Brazilian prisons for drug trafficking, were not part of the category of citizens being focused on at the moment, referring their case to the South African mission in that country.

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