The small rural community of Thaba Nchu in the Free State is fearful and angry after rumours spread that the town will be chosen as a site of quarantine for South Africans returning from Wuhan, China – the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.
The Black Mountain Hotel, perched on a mountain at the end of a long, isolated road in Groot Hoek, has allegedly been inspected by government for this purpose.
Should these rumours be true, and the Black Mountain Hotel has indeed been selected to quarantine South Africans evacuating Wuhan, some say there will be an uproar in the community.
News24 understands that government has already inspected Black Mountain Reserve, but according Popo Maja, spokesperson for the Department of Health, 83 other sites in South Africa have also been inspected and no final decision has been made on the location for quarantine.
Business as usual
Sources have told News24 that staff at Black Mountain Hotel have been informed that quarantine is a possibility and have been given the option of taking paid leave during this time.
Another source told News24 the military visited the hotel last week, but has not been back since. For now, it is business as usual at Black Mountain Hotel.
Yet an apprehensiveness has set in among community members.
Franse Mokole, a local business owner in the town, believes the government will not be able to handle the quarantine.
“Especially in the Free State, I don’t think they will be able to handle it because already as it is, people are suffering, and people are not getting the services at hospitals.
“We will definitely [like] for the government to consult the community and to actually ask the community how they feel about it and explain, because we don’t know about this coronavirus,” Mokole said.
Another 24-year-old Thaba Nchu resident said she would be “devasted” if she caught the coronavirus, adding: “Whatever they’re going to be doing, they will not be 100% sure if those people are 100% free of that virus.”
“I don’t even think we are educated about this virus, we don’t know about it, we don’t know how to prevent it, we don’t even know if it’s possible to prevent it…
“If they’re healthy, then why don’t they just go straight to their homes, why do they have to come here?”
From the community’s experience with service delivery in the area, their worry is only natural.
The Black Mountain Hotel
On Wednesday, the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure said negotiations with potential service providers for the quarantine site are still ongoing.
“At this stage, the technical team is working hard to finalise this critical area of work and there is no specific venue that has been confirmed.
“We have also received some disturbing reports, of some of the potential service providers being intimidated. This intimidation makes it very difficult for government to speedily conclude preparations,” it said.
News24 spent a week in the area, to understand more about these plans.
The long stretch of road leading from Thaba Nchu to the hotel, which worms through hilly veld, is always isolated, though sometimes, a family on a horse drawn cart can be seen making their way around.
Road signs along the way point to what is no longer there – a reform school and an airport with only its steel under-structure to remind passers-by that it in fact once existed.
The hotel strictly controls access, with only one way in and one way out, unless someone wants to venture into the endless acres of the Maria Maroka Nature Reserve surrounding it.
Inside the hotel, gaudy interior design seemingly dates back to the 1980s, characterised by a brown and gold colour palate.
A roughly 5m-long glossy brownstone water feature in the lobby kindly asks guests to save water. Behind this is the Moroka Restaurant, overlooking a crystal blue pool and the great expanse of the mountainous veld beyond that.
The hotel’s general manager, Peter Leonard, said he did not know anything about rumours that the hotel is a possible site for quarantine, and is unsure of whether government inspected the place.
He, however, told News24 that nothing was signed.
Should this be the site of quarantine, our fellow South Africans will be staying in the lap of luxury. Stepping into the Black Mountain Hotel is in stark contrast to the small town of Thaba Nchu below it.
Here – worlds apart but just 20 minutes away – a man rides his skeletal horse, squirming under the pressure, into the middle of town like a western gone wrong.
Behind him, a building with the distinct red letters of Shoprite has half collapsed, revealing only ‘Oprite, and outside rubbish and potholes are not only a danger for cars but also pedestrians who don’t walk so much as hop along their way.
The community are friendly to each other, always greeting each other with a smile and always ready to chat.
On Thursday, a small group of community members took to the streets in protest, burning tyres over water cuts, of which they said they were not informed.
In response, six police vehicles and three casspirs arrived on scene and cornered them off, agitating the community further.
The people of Thaba Nchu maintain they will not be forgotten, demanding they be involved in the process of choosing the quarantine site and be educated about the fast-spreading virus.