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Parents concerned about the future of students returning from China

South African students studying at Wuhan University in China have been left in limbo about continuing their studies, because the government has suspended their bursaries. 

On Tuesday, their parents were given notice of the suspension by the head of the department of international relations and co-operation in the Free State, Alphons Kau. In the statement Kau said that South Africa would not be responsible for the students’ travel arrangements or costs associated with their return to China once the Covid-19 threat had passed in that country. 

Some students have been in lockdown for nearly two months, and their parents are anxious to have their children safely back on home soil. Wuhan in Hubei province is the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.

Setjhaba Maphalla, spokesperson for the Free State Premier Sisi Ntombela, confirmed that the government will suspend the bursaries and its obligation to students until there have been further discussions.

“The bursaries, including the obligation of both the Free State provincial government and that of the student, will be suspended until there is clarity regarding the possibility to continue with their studies in China,” he said.

“It is still early to announce whether they can go back to China … but the Free State government is still committed to ensure that they complete their studies.”

In a direct communication with parents, Kau asserted that students would be able to return to Wuhan once the situation there had normalised. 

South Africans wishing to be repatriated from China were each handed a consent form that required them to agree to a period of quarantine. 

In the consent form, which the Mail & Guardian has seen, it states: “The laws will result in you being committed to an appropriate healthcare facility, isolated, and/or otherwise deprived of your liberty and other associated rights for limited periods.” 

Safe and sound

A concerned parent from the Free State, Sinah Moeketsi, said all she wants is her son back in the country and that she will consider the implications when he is back at home safe and sound.

“On Sunday last week, they said in 10 days our children will be back. Now they have sent us this form; I don’t care about it. Let our children come back and breathe some fresh air and we will take it from there. On Friday, it is going to be 50 days since the kids have been on lockdown. It’s also been 12 days since the president announced the repatriation,” she said on Wednesday. “I will cross that bridge when I get there…”

Linda Aaron is the mother of Thato Aaron, who is also studying in Wuhan. She says that expecting her child back home is the most relieving feeling ever.

“I think I haven’t got to the part of being excited yet. I am just relaxed by the news that they are coming back home. This is something we have been praying for as parents for a while now,” said Aaron. “Even the fact that we  won’t see them immediately … We can hold on to it. Just until the quarantine process is over.

“Since the government made ways for our children to go and study in China, they should find another way to send them back. I believe they are smart enough to finish what they started already on this investment,” she added.

Repatriation plan

Initially the M&G reported that there were 184 South Africans who expressed the desire to return home from China. In a statement released by the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) on Tuesday evening, it was reported that, “Plans have been finalised for the repatriation of 122 South Africans currently residing in Wuhan.” 

“Over time and having made consideration of personal circumstances, some South Africans have indicated to government their decision to rather stay on at their respective commitments in Wuhan.”

According to the statement, the plane is expected to land in the country on Friday March 13.

After being quarantined for 21 days in a designated area, the South Africans will be reunited with their families.

GCIS acting director general Phumla Williams said the department had prepared the consent form with knowledge that there would be positive and negative consequences for anyone involved in the repatriation process.

“Issues surrounding the continuation of studies, employment security upon return, the cost of returning to China, and many other factors would influence the decision and we needed to make it clear that the government will not be able to assist with ameliorating such consequences,” she said.

The form was prepared with assistance from a legal team that is working on the repatriation project, according to Williams.

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Chris Gilili
Chris Gilili is a climate and environmental journalist at the Mail & Guardian’s environmental unit, covering socioeconomic issues and general news. Previously, he was a fellow at amaBhungane, the centre for investigative journalism.

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