Government rejects M&G report about reluctant coronavirus evacuation

The government has officially denied that South African National Defence Force (SANDF) personnel were unwilling to fly to China to deal with the evacuation of 184 South Africans trapped there since the outbreak. 

Government Communication and Information System acting director-general Pumla Williams on Friday slammed the Mail & Guardian’s report about the reluctance of defence force personnel to travel to Wuhan, China as “shameful”. 

“There is no truth to what they are saying,” Williams told news broadcaster ENCA. Williams commended “patriotic South African” media that published articles educating the public about coronavirus.

The M&G on Friday reported that the SANDF was struggling to assemble a crew willing to make the trip to Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in China, to evacuate 151 South Africans. Personnel have consistently cited fears for their own health. 

Williams previously confirmed that a plane to carry out the evacuation “has been secured” but offered no reason why the aircraft has not departed. “We are not withholding information unnecessarily. It is because we have nothing confirmed yet,” Williams told the M&G this week.

Further exacerbating matters is the fact that the SANDF had initially been opposed to the idea of evacuating South Africans from China. The decision had, however, been taken by the justice, crime prevention and security cluster, which includes the departments of justice, home affairs, defence, state security and the treasury.  

Responsible reporting

“As media practitioners we are acutely aware of the need for responsible reporting around this issue and, therefore, stand by our story,” said Khadija Patel, editor-in-chief of the M&G

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the M&G has run a series of stories detailing the government’s plans to deal with the disease. These reports have subsequently been confirmed by authorities. The M&G has also run stories about South Africans trapped in China and the efforts to repatriate them by their families back home. Other stories have also detailed the spread of the disease and separated the facts from some of the misinformation about Covid-19.

Some South Africans trapped in Wuhan told the M&G on Friday they were instructed by the government not to share any information about the evacuation plan “for their own good”.

“We are not at liberty to say anything about the repatriation; they said it’s for our own safety,” said a South African student at Wuhan University.

Although Williams insisted that the government has always been open about its efforts in dealing with the virus, information published by the M&G three weeks ago — stating that the government was considering operating a quarantine base in Thaba Nchu in the Free State — was denied by the health department. At the time the government said it was “satisfied” that Chinese authorities were doing everything in their power to curb the spread of the virus. 

Last week, the government announced that President Cyril Ramaphosa had ordered the evacuation of South Africans stuck in Wuhan Province. In the hours leading up to the announcement last Thursday, media interest and speculation grew, as did the interest in Thaba Nchu being the base, as other media houses cited their own sources confirming the plan.

*The figures in this story have been corrected

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Sabelo Skiti

Sabelo Skiti is an investigative journalist.

Chris Gilili
Chris Gilili is an Open Society Fellow in Investigative Reporting at Wits University. Currently spending six months with the Mail and Guardian in the Investigations desk. He started journalism with Independent Media’s vernacular publication, I’solezwe LesiXhosa in East London. He has freelanced for publications such as GroundUp and Workers World Media.

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