Family fears coronavirus after SA man studying in China goes missing

Student Alfa Mpetsheni, in both pictures, has gone missing in China, say his family. But Chinese authorities say he flew to Bangkok on January 26.
Student Alfa Mpetsheni, in both pictures, has gone missing in China, say his family. But Chinese authorities say he flew to Bangkok on January 26.
Image: Supplied

The family of a South African student based in China is praying for his safe return after he went missing last month.

Thulani Mpetsheni, the father of 25-year-old Alfa Mpetsheni, said his son was a final-year BCom student at Zhejiang Gongshang University in Hangzhou.

However, investigations by the Chinese embassy revealed that Mpetsheni graduated in June 2019.

Thulani said he was contacted by Alfa’s friends three weeks ago, asking about his whereabouts. “We received a call from his friends who said they had not been able to locate or get hold of him … They had planned a trip to Bangkok, Thailand, as schools had been closed,” he said.

Attempts by the family to reach Alfa have so far proved unsuccessful.

His mother Thuli is reportedly upset at not knowing what has happened to her son. “She is obviously distraught, devastated and heartbroken,” said Thulani.

"As a family we are worried, because we can’t even travel to China right now and the official channels are proving not to be operational."

He said the university and embassy had been closed amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, which has delayed communication in their quest to find answers.

The virus has killed more than 800 people in the country, although the embassy said China had dedicated resources and was making the "utmost efforts in giving priority to protect foreign nationals in China from the novel coronavirus".

“Despite everything, we are hopeful and praying that he is found alive. Anything is possible. He could be in a hospital or something,” said Thulani.

On Monday, the Chinese embassy in SA said resources had been dedicated to finding Alfa.

Unlike the family, the embassy said Alfa was no longer a student.

“An investigation by the Chinese embassy in SA has found that Alfa Mpetsheni, once a student at Zhejiang Gongshang University in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, graduated in June 2019,” it said in a statement.

"According to the latest records of China’s entry-exit administration, the student flew from Shanghai to Bangkok, Thailand, on January 26 2020."

Thulani dismissed the allegations made by the embassy. “Alfa has never graduated. He was supposed to graduate last year but missed a semester after losing his passport. He came back home in June to get a passport," he said. "It's ridiculous they would say he graduated when we never attended any graduation. I can even provide proof of fees payment for his final-year studies."

Thulani added that if his son had indeed flown to Thailand, the embassy needed to provide proof of his flight details.

The embassy could not be reached for further comment, but said it was in contact with education authorities in Wuhan and Hubei province daily to follow closely the situation of South African students in the country.

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