Explainer: Does the state have a duty to pay to bring back body of a South African who dies overseas?

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It is recommended to take out traveling insurances when going abroad.
It is recommended to take out traveling insurances when going abroad.
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Nomaqocwa Black, Lusanda Sixaxeni, Kgothatso Mdunana, Sheila Seleoane and Hombisa Nana Mafuduka. These South Africans did not know each other, and yet they have one thing in common - they all died overseas and most of them had to be repatriated home. 

Nomaqocwa was found dead in her Shanghai flat, Kgothatso fell to her death from the 13th floor under mysterious circumstances and Lusanda, the latest death, fell ill with a bacterial infection. 

For most of these South Africans, who had left the shores in search greener pastures, their families then had to come together and raise funds in order for their bodies to be sent home. 

News24 reported in April this year that Nomaqocwa, 29, from Motherwell in Gqeberha, was found dead in her flat. She was on the floor next to her bed when Chinese police and her South African friend and colleague, Abongile Mboto, discovered her body.

She left South Africa to be an English teacher in Shanghai and the police had to smash her door in after her friend, Abongile, got suspicious when Nomaqocwa failed to submit material for work.

Meanwhile, Sheila was dead for two years when she was found in her London flat. She was buried in the UK. 

Hombisa died in a MSC Cruise ship and her loved ones struggled to find answers. 

In 2021, there were dozens of students reportedly stuck in Turkey and had to be brought home. 

Every few months, stories like these hit the news and the question is always, 'What can the department of international relations do?'

Dirco spokesperson Clayson Monyela explains where the department can help and what they can't get involved with. 

Travel and health insurance is important when travelling abroad, the department stresses.

This could be the difference between paying hundreds of thousands of rands to bring a loved one home. 

When someone dies overseas, the department cannot offer monetary assistance, Dirco's Clayson explains.

Read more | Mortuaries playing musical chairs with decomposing bodies as loadshedding leaves them in the dark

“Every government including South Africa offers what we call consular services for its citizens abroad when they are in distress, and the word distress would cover any situations where nationals from our country need help from our embassy,” he says. 

“For instance, if they are travelling abroad and fell on the wrong side of the law, and then we, through the embassy, would request to see them in jail, check what they are charged with as well as if they are being treated well, and of course in cases where our people are in hospital, this is how we got to know [about] Lusanda.”

Lusanda left South Africa in 2019 to go and teach English in China. The 27-year-old unfortunately fell sick the same week she planned to come back to her home in Mossel Bay, Western Cape.

To repatriate her body for a proper burial, the family needs about R400 000.

“There are responsibilities from the embassy, as part of the consular services, which are to get in touch with the family. Once a national of another country passes on, China in this case would have the responsibility to inform the South African embassy that a South African has passed away in our country, so that we can then liaise with their family back home in South Africa.”

One of the examples of how the department helps is the case of 21-year-old Ashley Oosthuizen, who was sentenced to life in Prison in Thailand for drug smuggling.

Friends and family rallied around her, calling for her release. They alleged that there was enough evidence to prove her innocence, News24 reported.

Speaking to News24 at the time, Clayson confirmed to the publication that, “The department, as well as the SA Embassy in Bangkok, is providing her and her family in South Africa with the standard consular assistance applicable to such cases."

However, "the SA Government is not in a position to intervene in any legal aspects, court hearings and judicial processes in a foreign country. Dirco only communicates with the detainee and designated family members regarding SA citizens in custody abroad”, he added.

Read more | Three international students share their experiences being away from home during the pandemic

Chatting to Drum, Clayson reiterated that, “the consular services provided by the government through our embassies is non-financial and that is the policy of the South African government".

He says there are options, and that’s why he advices South Africans to consider travel and health care insurances when travelling abroad.

“South African citizens who are travelling abroad – whether for studying purposes, for work, leisure etc as tourists – should always register with Dirco so that we know about where you are going.

"And the second thing we advise people to do is to have travel insurance, which is offered by most banks as well as travel agencies.”

The cheaper method when you have lost a loved one who was travelling abroad is cremation, says Clayson. But that is not something most South Africans are comfortable with. 

“Then in that case, the ashes can simply be couriered, or whatever other cheaper mode of transport the family [chooses].

"But all of those decisions belong to the family because, as I said, the consular services from government are non-financial and this policy is not unique to South Africa. So, there is no government that has a budget for such cases.”

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