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Coronavirus: Mistaken identity, Japanese, Chinese, same difference?

The stopping of a group of Japanese who entered South Africa through the Lebombo Port of Entry on Sunday was a combination of a comedy of errors, including fake news, poor intelligence, poor communication and mistaken identity.

As South Africans were keenly awaiting President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement on new drastic measures to combat the rapid spread of Corona Virus on Sunday afternoon, another drama was unfolding in Mpumalanga.

It started with a media alert by Mpumalanga’s Economic Freedom Fighters that a group of prohibited Chinese nationals had entered South Africa.

Mpumalanga police spokesperson, Brigadier Leonard Hlathi, acknowledged that police stopped the group following a tip off that a group of prohibited Chinese had entered the country illegally.

“Information was passed to the office of the Provincial Commissioner, Lieutenant General Mondli Zuma by a whistleblower, about a convoy of buses ferrying Chinese nationals headed to Gauteng. The whistleblower made allegations that the occupants might possibly be a group of Chinese who were prohibited to disembark from their flights at the OR Tambo International Airport on 20 March 2020,” said Hlathi.

Mistaken identity

Upon intercepting the group at Machado Plaza toll police escorted them all the way back to the Lebombo border, where they discovered that the group were in fact not Chinese but Japanese national.

“When the police arrived at the border with the buses, they were informed that the occupants were not Chinese but Japanese nationals, working in Mozambique and that their government apparently decided to evacuate them from Mozambique back to Japan,” said Hlathi.

While Hlathi declined to name the police informant, it is believed that they relied on information provided by officials of the Economic Freedom Fighters in Mpumalanga province.

The organisation’s Mpumalanga spokesperson, Eric Masuku acknowledged their role in the saga.

“The EFF has through its national leadership and ground forces been tracking a group of Japanese nationals attempting to enter South Africa illegally.”

“The group is possibly part of the passengers of one of the 14 aircrafts which were turned back on the 20th March 2020 at OR Tambo International Airport after South African citizens had disembarked. This was due to the aircraft carrying passengers that are not South Africans.”

“In light of the spike in the rate of the Corona virus (COVID-19) infections across the world, no one is allowed entry into South Africa except for South African citizens,” said the EFF in a statement released on Sunday.

South Africa’s Home Affairs minister, Aaron Motsoaledi acknowledged that the incident was triggered by what he described as “fake news”.

He said that a Chinese aircraft carrying 150 people consisting of 80 South African students who were allowed to disembark and 70 Chinese who were refused entry and instructed to go back to China.

“Their aircraft indeed departed OR International Airport at 15:01 on 20 March 2020. It landed with all of them at Shenzhen in China at 08:50 on Sunday the 23 March 2020 before continuing to Beijing. So, it was with shock that some of us saw this picture that they are in Mozambique, because the air traffic controllers showed us pictures when they followed them until they passed Madagascan airspace, and we know that they were gone, so by some magic they are back in Mozambique buying their way out through corrupt officials,” said Motsoaledi.

He said he instructed officials from the department to lay charges against those who were spreading the information.

“This is the first test case of whether people posting fake news can be charged or not. We are going to charge these ones, and we have identified at least three of them,” he said.

Thus, when the 24 Japanese nationals entered South Africa through the Lebombo border post with South Africa, they were suspected to be the very “Chinese” who had been denied entry at OR Tambo International.

Motsoaledi, who explained that the group had permission to be in South Africa following an arrangement with their embassy, described the Sunday incident as unfortunate.

“This was a very unfortunate event. The Japanese who were accosted were 24 in number. They are employees of the Japanese Co-operation Agency. They had been in Mozambique since May last year. They never went anywhere, they never left Mozambique.

“On March 20th, the Embassy of Japan asked for assistance from the Republic of South Africa to facilitate their transit through OR Tambo (International Airport) to go back to Japan, and because Japan is not on the list of high-risk countries, this request which went through DIRCO (Department of International Relations and Co-operation) was acceded to. They arrived and even sent us a list and individual profiles of each one of them.

“When they arrived at the border post, they were checked against the list given by the Japan Embassy and it was found that they were the same people and they were let through.”

“I think the police were led by members of the public and I must praise the police for acting. I’m not condemning them, even though it was unfortunate, they were acting in accordance with the rules that because they were told that these are Chinese and they were not allowed in the country, but after it had been explained to them, they allowed them to pass and indeed they left for Japan on 03:30 on the 23rd of March and they landed in Japan,” said Motsoaledi.

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