File picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)
File picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

SANDF members are not refusing to travel to coronavirus-hit Wuhan, says Mkhize

By Siyabonga Mkhwanazi and Sihle Mlambo Time of article published Mar 6, 2020

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Cape Town - Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has denied that members of the SANDF are refusing to man an aircraft travelling to China to repatriate 151 South Africans.

This follows a report in the Mail & Guardian on Friday that members of the defence force were refusing to travel to China because they fear for their lives. The aircraft was reportedly ready, but there were no people willing to man the aircraft.

But Mkhize said on Friday this was not true.

Speaking on SABC News on Friday morning, Mkhize said he had seen the report, and had on Thursday evening been in contact with the chief of the army, General Solly Shoke, who was not aware of this situation.

“Let me hasten to add that such a fear would be unnecessary because all over the world people are dealing with the issue of the coronavirus and are treating it at the moment and more people have been treated and released,” said Mkhize.

“So the fear is unfounded but we will not be able to talk much about it because the SANDF, the chief of the army and the Minister have not said anything to us about it,” he said.

SANDF spokesperson Simphiwe Dlamini also denied the Mail and Guardian report on Friday morning and said the SANDF had been at the forefront of repatriation efforts since the day a decision was taken to repatriate South Africans in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus. 

"There is no truth whatsoever about the story in the Mail and Guardian. We have been hard at work since Day 1 with the logistics around this mission. We as the SANDF have been at the fore front in planning this operation," he said.

Dlamini said although he could not give an exact date about when the SANDF would be expected to travel to Wuhan, he said as soon as the logistics were ready, the SANDF would be ready to move. 

He also could not confirm how many soldiers would be utilised in the mission, saying it would be determined by the operational plan as some would travel to China and some would be posted at quarantine facilities once the South Africans abroad had been repatriated. 

"The numbers will vary on the needs because there are different areas of responsibility which will be determined by the operation plan," he explained. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced last week that the government would be repatriating citizens from Wuhan. The president said a budget of R25 million had been set aside for members of the army to travel to China and repatriate 151 South Africans.

Allying supposed fears in the army, Mkhize said he did not believe there was any reason for them to feel unsafe. Mkhize had earlier said the repatriation of the South Africans would happen in the next few days. But he did not give a specific date.

The minister also announced on Thursday that a first case of the coronavirus was detected in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands after a couple returned from a vacation in Italy. The 38-year-old man and his wife returned to the country via OR Tambo International Airport on Sunday and connected a flight to Durban's King Shaka International Airport.

The Health Department said the man experienced symptoms three days after returning home and has been on 'self-isolation' since he visited a private doctor this week. 

Cowan House Preparatory in the KZN Midlands, a school the patient's children attend, was closed on Friday as a precautionary measure. 

Ramaphosa and the portfolio committee on health have urged all South Africans not to panic. 

The committee will on Friday visit OR Tambo International Airport to conduct an inspection on the screening system there.The ports of entry have been put on alert and people travelling were screened there.

Political Bureau

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