Court battle looming to test and release South Africans in 'appalling' Mpumalanga quarantine facility

2020-05-04 18:13
An empty rondavel at the Zithabiseni quarantine camp close to Groblersdal.

An empty rondavel at the Zithabiseni quarantine camp close to Groblersdal. (Supplied by Melanie Nel)

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South Africans at a quarantine facility near Groblersdal in Mpumalanga want to head to court over the "appalling" conditions they are allegedly made to live under, and government's apparent refusal that they be privately tested for Covid-19. 

City Press on Sunday reported that seven individuals – who were among a group of South Africans repatriated from Mozambique on 27 April and taken to the government-owned Zithabiseni Resort & Conference Centre outside Groblersdal – claim they haven't been tested and are living in a place teeming with cockroaches and rotten cardboard. They reportedly also said that they were being served "substandard" food. 

The Mpumalanga Department of Health initially quarantined 115 people at the resort, which is owned by the Mpumalanga Parks and Tourism Agency. Twenty of them were international tourists. Eight left the site after completing their 14-day quarantine period and testing negative for Covid-19, according to City Press. There are currently 107 people at the camp. 

READ | Quarantined South Africans head to court to demand their release

On Sunday, civil rights group AfriForum arranged for a team that offers medical services to visit the Zithabeseni quarantine camp to be tested at its own cost.

"Not only was the private medical team refused entrance to the premises, but the [South African Police Service] also called in backup to ensure the medical team won't be able to return," AfriForum said. 

AfriForum head of policy and action Ernst Roets told News24 that the organisation had sent a medical team to the camp at its own initiative. "Some of the residents at the camp had asked for private medical assistance, but this was refused."

Roets said some of the residents had been at the camp for between 10 and 12 days. "We have an issue with the fact that government has not yet tested them [for Covid-19] and that they are not being allowed to have a private test." 

'Held against their will'

In its statement, AfriForum said it was consequently assisting residents who were being held in the camp "against their will".

"Among these residents are Dr Leon Nel, his wife Melanie and their two children. They were brought here after being in Mozambique for vacation recently where they were in self-isolation for five weeks. While being in self-isolation they were also in consultation with officials from the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation in Mozambique."

AfriForum says that Nel, a veterinarian, told the organisation that the facilities at the camp were not up to standard and that he feared his family could fall very ill while staying there. He also reportedly supplied AfriForum with photos and video footage.

"AfriForum consequently directed an urgent letter to the ministers of health and of international relations and cooperation about the appalling circumstances under which the residents of this camp are forced to live. The civil rights organisation also demanded that the SAPS should allow the family to be tested for the virus so they could be released and isolate themselves if necessary."

Melanie Nel told City Press that everybody was complaining about the food. "We're not eating it and are currently providing for our kids from the limited supplies we were able to bring with us. 

"The bottom line is that we're all healthy, but are concerned that we and our kids will get sick in this place. All we want is to get tested and, if we're negative, we want to go home. We're willing to pay for our own tests, but we're not allowed to," she reportedly said. 

'Basic hygiene not adhered to'

AfriForum's legal representative Willie Spies told News24 its court application on Wednesday would seek two outcomes: Firstly, that those remaining at the camp be relocated to a facility with better living conditions; and that those who wish to be tested by a private healthcare facility, at their own cost, be allowed to do so. 

"There is evidence that basic hygiene practices are not being adhered to," Spies said. "Personal protective equipment such as gloves are not being used by kitchen staff, among other things. When they arrived at the camp, they were told the tap water was not for consumption and they were only given bottled water the following day.

"The standards and conditions at the camp are such that people should not be confined there. But what we would also aim for is to secure people's right to secure private testing should they choose, and - if they test negative - to be allowed to self-isolate at their homes. It's not necessary to treat people like criminals." 

But according to Department of Health spokesperson Popo Maja, the 14-day quarantine period is mandatory for everybody who crosses South Africa's borders.

Quarantine applies to all travellers

"The 14-day quarantine period applies to everyone who has been abroad, whether they appear healthy or not. We need to observe whether people display symptoms consistent with Covid-19. This happens over a period of 14 days, at the expense of the State. That is what quarantine is."

Maja said private testing before the completion of the required 14-day quarantine period was not an option, as the result might be a false negative. "This is also for the protection of other members of society." 

Mpumalanga health spokesperson Dumisani Malamule could not be reached by telephone regarding the allegations surrounding the conditions at the facility. 

Mpumalanga Parks and Tourism Agency spokesperson Kholofelo Nkambule told City Press that the resort was a suitable facility and, even though it had dilapidated buildings, the ones selected for quarantine were in a satisfactory and habitable condition.

"It's important to note that most of those repatriated from Mozambique are frustrated and don't want to be quarantined. As such, they're focused on ensuring that their quarantine period is reduced to three days instead of the prescribed 14," Nkambule reportedly said. 

AfriForum said it had already consulted with its legal team and that the case had been placed on the court roll of the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria to be heard on Wednesday.

Read more on:    afriforum  |  mbombela  |  coronavirus  |  health  |  lockdown
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