Mission (almost) Impossible: Trying to fly stranded South Africans back homeMission (almost) Impossible: Trying to fly stranded South Africans back home

The ‘boertjie’ who runs Maple Aviation takes flak from all quarters as he tries to bring stranded South Africans home: “I take calls every five minutes from distressed mothers and fathers. And I don’t have a massive staff. It’s basically just me at my dining room table with my computer in Toronto.”
Tertius Myburgh is resigned to being maligned. He’s trying to fly stranded South Africans home from the East and they’re mostly “gatvol” from being stuck abroad for months because of the coronavirus lockdown.
So they’re quick to criticise any delays or other problems. And there have been a heap of those. On Wednesday 8 July, Myburgh was bracing himself for another torrent of abuse on social media. His Boeing 767 aircraft bringing 105 South Africans and 65 Zimbabweans home from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Wuhan, China, was supposed to have been arriving in Johannesburg and Harare the next day.
But a combination of endless bureaucracy and an oil leak in the left engine postponed the flight for several more days, probably until 15 July. Or not.
Myburgh was talking from Toronto which is where he now lives and runs an airline called Maple Aviation from his dining room table. He recently leased the Boeing 767 from Air Zimbabwe for his rescue missions. That means the aircraft comes with the official backing of the Zimbabwean government.
That may not seem like such a blessing. But where he’s currently flying – particularly in China – it’s a plus because of the closeness of the Chinese and Zimbabwean governments. Families of South Africans due to return on Myburgh’s repatriation flight remarked that it was the Zimbabwean embassy in China, not the South African one, that was helping them with their paperwork and other arrangements.
Myburgh says as an aircraft operator his responsibilities usually extend only as far as dealing with the foreign civil aviation authority to get permission to land. But in the case of the Covid-19 crisis, many other considerations come into play.
For one, he had originally hoped to land in Beijing, rather than Wuhan. But because of the recent spike of Covid-19 cases in the capital, the Chinese authorities would only let him land in the city of Wuhan – ironically, the original epicentre of the pandemic.
That meant the South Africans and Zimbabweans stuck in China for many months, most of whom are in Beijing, would have to get to Wuhan. For one of them, this created a particular problem. Josh Doman is a young South African who has been in detention in Beijing since February because his visa expired. His two-week sentence of detention should have ended long ago but the Chinese authorities would only free him if he flew straight out of China. They wouldn’t allow him to stop over anywhere in the country – such as Wuhan. This requirement was also related to the new wave of Covid-19 infections in Beijing and the fear that Josh might carry the virus to Wuhan.
The hope of getting her son back on the Maple Aviation flight and then that hope being dashed by the inflexible bureaucracy added another yet layer of distress – another steep dive on the emotional roller coaster ride which his mother, Cynthia Immelman, has lived through for the past four months.
Then SAA announced a repatriation flight from Beijing on 17 June and about 200 stranded South Africans registered for that. But that flight was quietly cancelled, without any real explanation.
It started on February 18 when Josh handed himself over to Chinese authorities because his visa had expired. He was given a sentence of two weeks’ detention.
He could have left detention from March 4 if a flight from Beijing directly out of China was possible. There was an Ethiopian Airlines flight on 25 March – prior to lockdown – and she bought Josh a ticket on that flight for over R26,000. But then the SA embassy in Beijing said it had been cancelled.
Her hopes – and those of hundreds of other South Africans stranded in China – were raised again when the South African consulates in Beijing and Shanghai told them that a KLM flight to South Africa would depart from Beijing on 27 April. But this flight didn’t materialise. Then there was some suggestion from the consulates of a Cathay Pacific flight on 29 April. That one also evaporated.
Then SAA announced a repatriation flight from Beijing on 17 June and about 200 stranded South Africans registered for that. But that flight was quietly cancelled, without any real explanation.
Three days later, an Air China flight arranged by the Chinese government brought home 204 South African students who had been stranded in China. This had been arranged by the South African education department with the Chinese government, which had arranged the flight to take home its own citizens stuck in South Africa.
The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) said there was no room on this flight for Josh or many other stranded South Africans, including many teachers who were no longer being paid. They were not told about the flight until after it had happened.
By then Immelman and the many others still languishing in China realised their only hope was to arrange their own private charter. They contacted Myburgh. He offered two flights, Immelman said. One would require 23 South Africans to leave Guangzhou on 24 June on an Air Asia flight to Kuala Lumpur where he would collect them and take them home. His second flight would leave on 4 July with the rest of the South Africans.
Myburgh explained to his passengers on 7 July that the Wuhan departure had been delayed by a day to try to get clearance for Josh to get to Wuhan and embark on the flight. Then, he told Daily Maverick, there was a further delay caused by the SA embassy not getting exit permits to the South Africans in time.
The Guangzhou departure became an epic within an epic. Air Asia wouldn’t allow them to board, despite them having all necessary permissions from Dirco.
That night they slept where they could in the airport. Among them was a baby, two pregnant women, some with chronic illness, quite a few with no money.
After a crowd-funding effort by friends and family, enough money was found to accommodate them in a hotel for 11 days and buy essential medicines while they waited for another charter flight to collect them.
They then heard that Maple Aviation had received permission to fly from Wuhan on 7 July, because the Chinese had denied him permission to land in Beijing – where the second wave of Covid-19 had erupted.
On July 6, the group of 23 in Guangzhou packed and got on a train for Wuhan. But their saga was far from over still.
Myburgh explained to his passengers on 7 July that the Wuhan departure had been delayed by a day to try to get clearance for Josh to get to Wuhan and embark on the flight. Then, he told Daily Maverick, there was a further delay caused by the SA embassy not getting exit permits to the South Africans in time.
Next, he ran into what you could call anti-aircraft flak from South African bureaucracy. The flight had already left its original departure point, Bangkok, on its first leg to Islamabad, to collect some South Africans there, before making its way to Wuhan to fetch the bigger group there.
Then he heard that Natjoints – the powerful National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure, which decides who may fly where during the coronavirus shutdown – had rejected his list of passengers from Pakistan. They didn’t say why. The plane returned to Bangkok and then the oil leak in the engine was discovered. He ordered a new engine which Ethiopian Airlines was supposed to be delivering, but that was also delayed by customs problems.
On Thursday, the passengers at Bangkok airport were bussed to a hotel to stay at his expense – supposedly for a night. He also covered the accommodation of the Guangzhou group, Daily Maverick was told.
But the engine problem was worse than it looked at first and it now seems the flight will only depart on 14 or 15 July.
More abuse on social media for Myburgh expected
“They take you out on Facebook, WhatsApp, wherever,” he says. Some don’t like having to pay $1,000 (then R17,500) for the flight back to South Africa, which he says is cheap, especially considering the effort he has had to make to get these flights off the ground. In this case, he says that ticket price was only possible because he arranged to fly seafarers on the outward leg of the round-trip, to replace crews on cruise ships stuck in Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere.
The tickets for those seafarers, which were paid for by the cruise ship companies, lowered the price of the tickets for the returning passengers. Myburgh said if he had to fly an empty aircraft to Wuhan to collect the South Africans and Zimbabweans, their tickets would have cost around $3,500 each.
Some of his passengers discovered there is another Maple Aviation based in Nigeria. “So they immediately assumed – ‘Nigerian, must be a scam’. I say, listen to my accent. I’m a boertjie. I won’t take your money to buy whisky. I’ll get you home.
“I got this plane originally because my old high school headmaster got stuck in Myanmar in May and asked me to help him. There were eight South Africans there who had been looking at temples and so on.
“The only way to get him out was to find others to get out also.” And then he struck on the plight of the seafarers on the cruise ships, hundreds of whom have been stuck on their vessels for many months, some of them no longer being paid.
“It was absolute chaos There were seafarers committing suicide on those ships, jumping overboard,” Myburgh said.
So that’s how he developed his formula of flying seafarers one way and bringing back stranded locals the other way. When the group in China heard about him, they “bombarded” him for help.
They were particularly desperate and angry because SAA had let them down on that flight in June which never happened.
But Myburgh said he was sure the SAA flight was, like his flight from Beijing, cancelled because China wouldn’t give SAA clearance to land there. The difference is that SAA was committed to Beijing airport because of its historic infrastructure there, whereas he could more easily divert to Wuhan.
Meanwhile, when Cynthia Immelman heard the Wuhan flight had been delayed, she sensed an opportunity to try to get Josh to Wuhan before the new departure date. She had heard the Chinese authorities might relax their insistence on him flying straight out of China with no internal stop.
But the Chinese authorities weren’t budging. They had heard that Maple Aviation had scheduled another repatriation flight for South Africans and Zimbabweans out of the southern city of Guangzhou on July 17. For some reason they seemed more amenable to putting him on that flight.
Then Myburgh informed her late last week that the Guangzhou flight had also been postponed, until 23 July.
As he explained to Daily Maverick, the Guangzhou departure was part of a longer itinerary that was originally supposed to depart from Harare and Johannesburg on 10 July and take in Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Hanoi, Guangzhou, Kathmandu, Delhi, and then back to Johannesburg and Harare.
On the Kuala Lumpur-Guangzhou leg, he would be repatriating 203 stranded Chinese seafarers and picking up what he hoped would be the last batch of South Africans stranded in China. These seafarers, according to his formula, would be making the tickets more affordable for the South Africans and Zimbabweans going home. He had already begun informing them to make their way to Guangzhou.
For Myburgh, trying to help Immelman and all his other passengers and their families to navigate Chinese and South African bureaucracy as well as intercontinental airwaves has become his new normal.
But then he told Josh’s family that the Chinese had told him that they had no quarantine accommodation in Guangzhou for the seafarers on 17 July, only on 23 July.
Immelman began to despair that the Guangzhou flight might be delayed yet again, perhaps indefinitely. On Saturday 12 July she appealed to Dirco officials to take advantage of the delay in the Wuhan flight to try to persuade the Chinese authorities to get Josh from Beijing to Wuhan before 15 July.
She also told them she had heard that a South African Airways cargo flight would be leaving Beijing, also on July 15, and asked if Josh could be put on that flight – which would avoid any Chinese reservations about moving him to Wuhan before he left China.
Immelman reminded the Dirco officials that their minister, Naledi Pandor, had said at her last press conference that the government was keeping down the costs of repatriating South Africans by asking airlines carrying cargo to allow them to travel in their passenger cabins.

She also pointed out that Guangzhou flight was originally meant to leave from Beijing on 4 July and that the date had kept changing.
“I’m sure you can understand that I don’t have much faith that this will indeed happen on the 23rd, hence my pleas to bring Joshua home on either the Wuhan flight or the SAA cargo flight.”
So far she has just received a “noted” from Dirco.

For Myburgh, trying to help Immelman and all his other passengers and their families to navigate Chinese and South African bureaucracy as well as intercontinental airwaves has become his new normal.
“From being just an aircraft operator before, I now have to get involved in the paperwork of each of my passengers and liaise with the embassy to ensure the passengers have everything they need to get out,” he says.
“I take calls every five minutes from distressed mothers and fathers. And I don’t have a massive staff. It’s basically just me at my dining room table with my computer in Toronto,” he said.
But he doesn’t seem to mind. He’s resigned not only to being maligned, but to being constantly harassed. That’s aviation in the time of plague.
www.samigration.com

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