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A visibly overwhelmed Thabo Siavhe emerged from customs into the arms of his emotional family just after landing at OR Tambo International Airport on Tuesday, only days after being released from military custody in Sudan.
The 28-year-old employee of the Mechem demining company was accompanied by his mother and an uncle, who had gone to meet him when he disembarked from the aircraft. As he walked into the arrivals area, colleagues, relatives, and representatives of the Ramabulana chiefdom in Venda welcomed him.
Siavhe and three others were captured on April 28 and kept in Sudanese military custody.
They were released at the weekend after the intervention of former president Thabo Mbeki.
Siavhe said the experience had not been too bad.
“I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. As soon as I got communication from my employers I knew things would be fine,” he said, cradling his one-year-old son, Lucky, in his arms.
His emotional grandmother, his sisters, mother and other family members ululated as he approached.
His sisters threw themselves at him and they all cried as the rest of his family danced and chanted words of thanks that he had come back alive.
“When I saw him being pulled out of an aircraft and pushed into a car on TV I almost collapsed,” his mother, Johanna Mahlangu, said.
She said she had no idea how she had survived the two weeks before Siavhe called to reassure her he was alive.
“He called me last Saturday and when I heard his voice I broke down… all I could hear were words to the effect that he would be coming home,” said Mahlangu.
Mbeki and former Burundian president Pierre Buyoya met Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum on Saturday, where they discussed, among others, the plight of the workers.
Bashir agreed to release the four workers – one from South Sudan, another from Britain and a Norwegian national – to the AU High Level Implementation Panel, of which Mbeki and Buyoya are members.
The AU panel is working with the warring Sudan and South Sudan to end hostilities between them and resume negotiations.
Mechem is a company in the Denel group. It provides humanitarian demining services to the UN peacekeeping forces in the region, and is involved in a “UN humanitarian landmine clearance contract” in South Sudan.
Denel group chief executive Riaz Saloojee heaped praise on Mbeki and the process that led to Siavhe’s release.
“We are very happy and thank Mr Mbeki, the ambassadors involved and all who have given support through this period,” he said.
Saloojee said the company’s employees understood the danger they were exposed to while doing humanitarian work, but it was scary when something happened.
“We will be giving Thabo counselling. He will have debriefing meetings from which he will decide on going back or not,” Saloojee said.
Siavhe told reporters he was exhausted and needed time with his family. He also wanted to rest.
Lodwick Mahuma, representing the Venda chiefdom from which Siavhe’s family hail, said: “When we heard the news we worried and did not know what to do, but when the news of his release came we rejoiced.”
Mahuma said the role played by Mbeki was not lost on Chief Kutama Ramabulana, who would for ever be indebted to the former president.