Minister Lindiwe Sisulu. Picture: THE TIMES
Minister Lindiwe Sisulu. Picture: THE TIMES

On Thursday, the Department of International Relations and Co-operation said it was doing everything it could to ensure the safe return of 51 South Africans stranded in China after finding themselves embroiled in a visa scam.

The department’s minister Lindiwe Sisulu said Police Minister Bheki Cele and Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba had all been roped in to assist in the investigations. "Our embassy in Beijing is liaising with the Chinese authorities in addressing this matter. We are also in touch with the Chinese ambassador to SA to have their passports released. The Chinese ambassador to SA has made an undertaking that he will expedite the matter‚" Sisulu said in a statement.

Her office said the group had been enticed by an agent to travel to China on a study visa while planning to work as English teachers.

"The promise was that they would get their work visas on arrival in the country, which never materialised. While in China on study visas they started working‚ which was in contravention of the immigration laws of the Republic of China‚" Sisulu’s office said. "We are very much aware that the Chinese authorities will follow their own legal process when such a violation occurs and deal with the matter accordingly."

Sisulu called on South Africans to be cautious when accepting job opportunities abroad. "We appeal to all South Africans to be cautious of these scams and to check with the relevant authorities before travelling to other countries‚" she said. "[My department] will continue to provide consular assistance to those South Africans in distress and also to keep those affected families informed of the latest developments."

On Wednesday‚ TimesLIVE reported on the suffering endured by the families of the group stuck in China. The parents of the youngsters have started a crowd funding initiative to get donations for food‚ water‚ accommodation and travel costs for the stranded group.

Liza Bold‚ the mother of Lee-Ann, who is among those in China‚ said her blood pressure is sky-high because her child is stranded in a foreign country.

No jobs in SA

Like many young South Africans‚ Lee-Ann‚ who is a qualified software developer‚ could not secure a job in her field so she decided to grab whatever promising opportunity came her way. Bold said she‚ her daughter, and a group of others went to a conference where an agent from China gave them a presentation‚ promising them jobs there.

But according to Bold‚ the agent withheld important information, such as one not being able to get a work visa for teaching English in China without a BA. The job hopefuls‚ mostly in their 20s‚ were not required to pay for anything and‚ therefore‚ concluded the offer was legitimate.

The agent withheld important information, such as one not being able to get a work visa for teaching English in China without a BA

"When they arrived the agent took their passports and promised he would arrange their work permits while they were placed at a university to learn arts and culture for two weeks‚" said Bold. But, instead‚ the group was subjected to a criminal investigation after the agent who recruited them got arrested. Officials probing the agent confiscated their passports.

"Her grandmother died in April and I went to see her‚ hoping that I would get [Lee-Ann] back for the burial. We postponed the funeral for two weeks but I couldn’t come back with her. She was close to her grandmother and not being able to [be at the burial] her broke her heart. My blood pressure is sky-high‚ I am not coping‚" said Bold.

Bold told TimesLIVE that the South African embassy in China had said it could not help them as the group was a part of an investigation.

It is believed the agent had been paid R40‚000 a recruit‚ while each of those recruited were expecting a salary of R16‚000 a month.

According to the Chinese Embassy in SA‚ last year it and the Chinese Consulate General in SA issued more than 1‚200 work visas to South African citizens‚ most of which intend to work as English teachers there.