SA-born pilot uses cellphone to rescue 100 people stranded in China by Covid-19

12 August 2020 - 14:15
By Unathi Nkanjeni
With just his cellphone, Tertius Myburgh set up a rescue mission to help South Africans stranded in China by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Image:ír Chalabala With just his cellphone, Tertius Myburgh set up a rescue mission to help South Africans stranded in China by the Covid-19 pandemic.

With only a cellphone, a limited balance and a contact list, a South African pilot living in Canada was able to help more than 100 South Africans and dozens of Zimbabweans return home.

Tertius Myburgh, a commercial pilot based in New Brunswick, Canada, helped rescue South African and Zimbabwean students stranded in China for months, from the comfort of his home.

According to a CNN report, Myburgh received several messages from students who had failed to return home on the government's first repatriation flights.

“Before Covid-19, you could just contact the Civil Aviation Authority, send your flight details and — boom — a day or two later, you have the authorisation and that's it,” Myburgh told the publication.

According to Myburgh, it was diplomats from Zimbabwe who helped facilitate repatriation with the Chinese authorities.

Myburgh managed to rent a Boeing 767, which was used by late former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. He also managed to assemble a crew for the rescue mission.

After weeks of authorisation battles, the flight finally left Harare, Zimbabwe, in mid-July. However, due to travel restrictions, it was necessary to make some stops.

Myburgh said the first was in Johannesburg and from there, they headed to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where they rescued a group of Chinese sailors who were taken to Guangzhou in southern China.

As it was not authorised to make domestic flights in China, the crew had to return to Malaysia before flying to Wuhan, where the Zimbabweans and South Africans were waiting.

Khomotso Mokgadi Ramalepe, a South African citizen who was among the students repatriated, took to Facebook to thank Myburgh and the Zimbabwean officials for assisting them.

She said that after a week of staying at a hotel they ran out of money and were about to sleep at an airport in Wuhan before Zimbabweans took them to a hotel where they were booked in and accommodated.

Ramalepe said after a few days at the hotel, they were repatriated and arrived at OR Tambo Airport on July 29.

"[Myburgh] could have chosen to leave us but he didn't. He said, 'I will come for you all' and he did. He came with Zimbabwe Airlines to do what SAA said was 'impossible'," said Ramalepe.

Read Ramalepe's post below.

When our own embassy said its impossible, This man Tertius Myburgh of Maple Aviation Charter Private Company said I will...

Posted by Khomotso Mokgadi Ramalepe on Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Repatriation of SA citizens

Dirco said, in its latest newsletter, that since July 10, it had repatriated more than 3,000 citizens from neighbouring states.

So far, more than 15 400 citizens have been repatriated since April.

“More South Africans were repatriated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, the Netherlands, the US, the UK, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Namibia, Malawi, Zambia, Turkey, Qatar, China, Uganda and Mauritius,” said the department.

The last repatriations were on July 26 when 11 South Africans were flown home from the Netherlands.

“South Africans abroad requiring repatriation have been encouraged to contact South African embassies to enable the department to assess the demand in each country.”