Family distraught as body of SA medical student still in Cuba due to lockdown

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)
  • Sibusiso Qongqo was due to return home for good in July to undergo in-service training at a local hospital after completing his medical studies in Cuba.
  • The Department of International Relations and Cooperation and Eastern Cape health department said the repatriation mission was being delayed by a lack of flights due to Covid-19.
  • His 60-year-old mother Nolubabalo Qongqo's health has deteriorated following his death and was too distraught to speak to News24.

The body of fifth-year medical student Sibusiso Qongqo, who died in Cuba on 29 April, is still in Havana due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

His distraught family has been lobbying the South African government to help repatriate his body.

Sibusiso from Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape's Intsika Yethu Municipality died 15 days after celebrating his 28th birthday following a short illness.

At the time of his death, all South Africa's borders, ports of entries - including airports - were closed and flights grounded.

His brother, Azola Qongqo, said their 60-year-old mother Nolubabalo Qongqo's health had deteriorated sharply following the incident. She was too distraught to speak to News24.

Sibusiso left South Africa in 2015 with a group of other medical students who were part of the Nelson Mandela/Fidel Castro Medical Collaboration Programme and was due to return in July to begin two years of service training, said his sister, Phiwokuhle Qongqo.

Maths and science boffin   

Azola, who described his late brother as a maths and science boffin, said he fell sick on 27 April from pancreatic complications and died two days later.

He added several talks with the national Department of Health and other government departments had yielded no results.

Azola said the national department, which they had approached after giving up on its provincial counterpart, stopped talking to the family on 21 May.

News24 is in possession of 24 email exchanges, which was sent between 13 and 21 May, between the Qongqo family; Nelson Mandela/Fidel Castro Collaboration Programme co-ordinator Nkosinathi Mjoli; South African Ambassador to Cuba Thaninga Shope; the chief director of consular services for the US, Caribbean and Canada at the Department of International Relations Cooperation (Dirco), Neliswa Beja; Dirco co-operate services manager Nelis Strydom; the director for the national health department's Environmental Health and Port Health Services, Funeka P Bongweni; and former South African Ambassador to Côte d'Ivoire and Dirco senior manager Dayanand Naidoo.

According to the emails, the body was planned to be carried by Air France on one of its weekly cargo flights from Havana to Paris. The team hit a snag when Strydom pointed out the big challenge was finding a connecting flight from Paris to Johannesburg.

That was the last time the family had heard from the government on the matter, said Azola.

Dreams shattered

The news of Sibusiso's death has devastated his family and their dreams of having the first doctor in the family.

Azola said his unemployed mother had pinned her hopes on Sibusiso to escape poverty. 

The medical programme, which was founded in 1996 by the then-presidents of Cuba and South Africa Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela, sends an intake of medical students abroad every year.

Azola said Sibusiso had matriculated from St James High School in Cofimvaba in 2008 with excellent results in maths, science and biology.

"The family requested a meeting with the province which was also literally not helpful. Due to these circumstances, we decided to take the matter into our own hands.

"We approached the national Department of Health with the help of our aunt. The process was promising and a couple of flights on which Sbu's remains could be repatriated were identified.

"Unfortunately, the matter kept going back and forth due to simple matters which we believe could have been sorted or communicated.

'We need assistance'

"The family felt that the matter was really not being taken as an emergency, the officials were slacking too much. We expressed our feelings to Mr Nkosinathi Mjoli who was the one assisting."

The spokesperson for the Eastern Cape's premier, Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha, said the province would give Dirco a chance to respond.

Dirco spokesperson Lunga Ngqengelele said the department was "on top" of the repatriation mission.

"Dirco is aware of this case and our colleagues are working hard to find a way of repatriating the body, including that all necessary paperwork was long done. The process is now being delayed by the non-availability of flights to bring the body back home. The department is in constant contact with the family."

Azola said: "After this, Mr Nkosinathi told the family that at this point he won't be assisting anymore, after his email we haven't received any further communication from the Department of Health. We feel that this is unfair to us and Sibusiso who was a South African citizen as well.

"Many citizens have been repatriated and we know that our request is possible as well. We need assistance on this matter. Our hearts will be at ease if we get his body back and bury him with all the dignity he deserves."

Eastern Cape health department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said: "We are with the family and feel their pain, however at this stage the delay to repatriate the remains of their son have been hampered by Covid-19 with no flights being available."

The health minister's spokesperson, Dr Lwazi Manzi, said while she would make minister Zweli Mkhize aware of the matter, it was the Department of Health that was in a better position to respond.

The department's spokesperson, Popo Maja, told News24 he would respond to our enquiry in due course as he was dealing with multiple media queries.

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