South Africa

On Home Soil

Stranded South Africans return safely from Wuhan, missing man found

Stranded South Africans return safely from Wuhan, missing man found
A combination of endless bureaucracy and technical problems have bedevilled Tertius Myburgh's Maple Aviation from flying stranded South Africans home from abroad. (Photo: Unsplash / Yousef Alfuhigi)

Louisa Motlhakoana, whose son Mojalefa missed the flight from Wuhan and disappeared, got a call from him hours later. Plans are being made for his return to South Africa.

After nearly six months stranded in China, and several failed attempts to get home, a group of very relieved South Africans touched down at OR Tambo International airport early on Tuesday.

“And the most emotional, stressful and logistical nightmare trip has ended,” Tertius Myburgh, the CEO of Maple Aviation, which conducted the flight, tweeted. “They are back on home soil. Welcome back, go rest and clear your minds. This ordeal will make you stronger.”

Two mothers are particularly relieved. Louisa Motlhakoana, whose son Mojalefa missed the flight from Wuhan and disappeared, got a call from him many hours later, at about 3am on Tuesday.

Mojalefa, 35, who had been teaching English in China since last March, had recently begun suffering from extreme stress and depression aggravated by the many delays in getting home.

His mother had told Daily Maverick that when he apparently walked out of the Wuhan airport building on Monday night into the streets of Wuhan she believed he was confused and feared for his safety.

On Tuesday morning Motlhakoana said Mojalefa called her and said he had gone to look for his phone when the rest of the group boarded the aircraft.

She said she was now arranging for a relative to fly from Beijing to Wuhan to collect Mojalefa and try to get him on another planned Maple Aviation flight home on Friday.

Meanwhile, another South African mother, Cynthia Immelman, at last has her son Joshua home. Joshua had been detained in Beijing since February when his Chinese visa expired.

Joshua’s predicament was particularly complex because Chinese authorities at first insisted he had to fly directly out of China from Beijing because he was in effect to be deported.

But eventually the Chinese relented and he was flown to Guangzhou in southern China to catch the Maple Aviation flight on its first stop in China.

The aircraft flew a very circuitous route partly because of coronavirus restrictions and partly because of logistics. It took off from Bangkok early on Sunday and flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to collect stranded Chinese seafarers, and took them home to Guangzhou. Then it collected Joshua Doman and some of the other stranded South Africans and Zimbabweans. It returned to Kuala Lumpur and dropped them off. Then it flew to Wuhan to collect the remainder of the South Africans and Zimbabweans and returned to Kuala Lumpur to pick up the rest of the group and flew to Johannesburg and Harare.

Motlhakoana said seven attempts to get home had thwarted her son’s hopes and precipitated his distress. He had first run away from the rest of the group as they were boarding a bus at their Wuhan hotel to go to the airport. He had eventually been found by police and persuaded to board the bus but then had disappeared again as they were about to board the aircraft.

The rest of the group had experienced some of the same frustration, despair and distress of their many failed efforts to get home. This included suggestions from the South African consulate in Shanghai that a KLM repatriation flight would leave there in April.

Mojalefa had impulsively flown to Shanghai and slept at the airport for several nights, waiting for a flight that never transpired.

Then, hopes were raised again when SAA announced a 17 June repatriation flight from Beijing. But that flight suddenly disappeared off SAA’s flight schedule.

At that point the whole group of South Africans in China, who had been pleading with the South African government to lay on a repatriation flight for them, despaired of that happening. They persuaded the private company Maple Aviation – run from Toronto, Canada by ex-South African Myburgh – to fetch them.

Myburgh agreed to do so. He hired an Air Zimbabwe Boeing 767 to conduct two repatriation flights of South Africans and Zimbabweans, from Guangzhou and Wuhan.

The first attempt failed when part of the group, including Mojalefa, were refused embarkation on a flight from Guangzhou on June 24.

After some nights in Guangzhou, the group caught a train in Wuhan to catch Maple Aviation’s second scheduled repatriation flight on 4 July. But after several bureaucratic delays, the company’s Boeing’s left engine packed up and had to be replaced. Several announced departures and cancellations later, it eventually took off from Bangkok this past Sunday, 26 July on its extremely circuitous homeward journey.

Myburgh told the stranded group in a WhatApp message last week that he had been “ruined” by the whole saga, mainly, it seems, because he was paying the hotel bills of his passengers during the long delays of the flights. DM

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