‘My biggest fear was getting the virus and dying in a foreign country’

While trapped in his flat in Wuhan, China, week after week, Sthembiso Motaung thought about death often. When he and his mother, who lives in Bloemfontein, chatted online, they feared his remains would never make it home.  

On Sunday, President Cyril Ramphosa sent home the 114 South Africans who had been  quarantined for 14 days at The Ranch resort in Limpopo, about 25km south of Polokwane. By the time South Africa comes out of lockdown, Motaung and his compatriots who returned from Wuhan will have completed 82 days under lockdown. 

Motaung is a final year student at Wuhan University in China, situated at the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak. He went there on a scholarship from the Free State provincial government and needs to submit his thesis and defend it to complete his software engineering degree. 

“My biggest fear was getting the virus and dying in a foreign country. Maybe with my family not even getting my body and just ashes or nothing. I imagined how much that would destroy them. Another fear was getting the virus and suffering to get medical attention on time,” said Motaung.

“At the back of my mind, I knew that everyone will die in a certain way. If it’s meant to be coronavirus, then that is inevitable, it will be that way. I just kept praying a lot to keep strong and took a lot of online courses to distract my mind and to empower myself.”

Motaung advised South Africans to not take Covid-19 lightly and was disappointed to discover how many people are making jokes about the pandemic.

“I have seen how people are casual about this — shaking hands and sharing cigarettes. In Wuhan, people don’t share cigarettes. The virus is indeed deadly and serious. People must stay home, use disinfectants all the time and stay vigilant,” he said.

“You must assume the next person you interact with is positive with the virus. That way, we will be able to keep each other safe and we can beat this virus as quickly as possible.

“South Africa is capable of beating this virus, especially with the lockdown implemented. Our people must comply and that way we decrease the chances of spreading this among us.”

Motaung’s advice to South Africans

Motaung believes the number of infected people in South Africa would be even lower if people had reacted in a better way and not travelled to all parts of the country, especially on Thursday, just before the beginning of the lockdown.


“I was in Soweto recently and observed how people carried on with their lives as if everything is normal. They still act as if the virus is still far from them,” he said.

Motaung advises people to stay home as much as possible and to limit their interaction. He also advises following only negative news, as this could have a severely detrimental effect on their mental health.  

From his observations in China, Motaung also realises that there needs to be much greater education. “Even the ‘I won’t die alone’ mentality that many people have, is pure ignorance,” he said.

After spending days in quarantine at The Ranch Hotel, the 27-year-old is staying with his family in Midrand and says he will focus on completing his thesis. 

His mother, Lisebe Motaung, is one of the parents who was very vocal about wanting her child repatriated from Wuhan. She told the Mail & Guardian that she is grateful to God that her son is back home.

“You know, the last time I saw my son was in August 2018. I feared that this dreadful virus is going to take him to his grave and I will never see his remains …” she said.

“I was so disturbed. I felt like I was dreaming when I saw him getting off that bus from Limpopo. As a family, we thank the South African government for bringing my boy [back] alive. I see my son as a hero, because he remained positive throughout this ordeal. The only thing he wanted was to be back home alive.”

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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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