South Africa

CORONAVIRUS #LOCKDOWN

South Africans paid for tickets but cannot leave Cote d’Ivoire

South Africans stranded for a month in Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa have no idea if any progress has been made by the embassy or the Department of International Relations and Co-operation in Pretoria in getting them home. (Photo: Flickr / Wolfgang Küchler)

Several South African travellers have been stranded in Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa for the past month, pleading with the South African government to fly them home and getting desperate as they run out of money, medicines and other essentials.

Some South Africans paid R7,000 for tickets on an SAA charter flight that was supposed to return from Germany via Accra, Ghana, last Sunday to pick them up there. But at the last minute the SA embassy in Abidjan – after insisting they pay upfront for their air tickets – told them Ghana had refused to allow them to cross the border from Cote d’Ivoire to catch the flight.

Ryan Muller and his business colleague John Dachada were among those who dug deep for the R7,000 tickets. They say that it was almost the last of their money and they are growing increasingly desperate. They doubt that they will retrieve their money which they had to pay directly into the account of the floundering SAA, which is in business rescue.

Muller said one of the unnerving things about their situation was not knowing much of what was happening outside the narrow confines of their bare accommodation at a training compound where they had been teaching philosophy before the sudden travel bans both in Cote d’Ivoire on March 23 and in South Africa on March 26 left them stranded. 

They have no idea if any progress has been made by the embassy or the Department of International Relations and Cooperation in Pretoria in getting them home.

On Thursday, Daily Maverick asked Dirco spokesperson Lunga Ngqengelele what was being planned to get the group home. He said the director-general of the department, Kgabo Mahoai, “who sits at the Natjoint [National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure] is aware of this issue. The department is working hard to find a solution and will keep in touch with the group in Abidjan.”

Muller was not impressed. 

“We have been hearing that since we paid our money. But what we found out is that the committee that was appointed to oversee repatriation didn’t even know about our flight until we made them aware….”

The stranded South Africans have a few more chances of getting home if the diplomatic obstacles can be cleared. About seven more SAA charter flights organised to repatriate stranded Germans and other citizens from South Africa will take off from Johannesburg and Cape Town over the next week. Some of the previous German flights have already brought stranded South Africans back from Germany.

“We are particularly pleased that South African travellers have been able to fly back with the SAA flights from Germany,” Germany’s ambassador to South Africa, Martin Schaefer, said. 

“We all know that the best place to be in a crisis is home.”

Since Germany is paying for these flights both ways, a detour by one of them to Abidjan or Accra to collect stranded South Africans should not present a huge cost to the South African government, it seems. 

Muller said he and Dachada came to Ivory Coast on 15 March on their teaching assignment and were due to go home on March 27. After they discovered flights out of Cote d’Ivoire had been cancelled and those into South Africa were about to be, they went to the SA embassy in Abidjan on March 25 to ask for help and to be repatriated. 

“But they were unable to help us.”

In April they received an email from Ms W Makwabe, director of consular services in Pretoria, “informing us that the country was in lockdown and that we could not be repatriated”.

Things seemed to be looking up on Wednesday last week, April 8, when Nomalizo Solwandle, a third secretary at the embassy in Abidjan, informed them that there would be an SAA flight leaving Frankfurt Germany on Sunday 12 April at 9.25am and that it would stop in Ghana to collect South African citizens on its way home.

“We were told that the embassy here in Ivory Coast was in contact with the government of Ghana to obtain the necessary border passes for us to cross from Ivory Coast into Ghana,” Muller said. 

“It is about a 14-hour drive, excluding any border delays, to Accra, Ghana.”

He and the other members then made frantic plans to drive to Accra, though with many expressing frustration about the lack of coordination.

On April 10, Solwandle told them SAA would only issue them e-tickets after receiving proof of payment and gave them SAA’s banking details for EFT payments. He and Dachadu each paid R7,000 and sent proof of payment to the embassy. Later that day the embassy informed them the Ivory Coast paperwork was ready but that the embassy was waiting for Ghana to approve their entry into the country from Cote d’Ivoire.

“Two hours later we were informed that despite the diplomatic efforts, the government of Ghana had declined to reopen their ports of entry to allow our whole group into Ghana so that we could catch our flight and that the plan to repatriate via Accra had been postponed.

“The R14,000 that was paid over by us, under the assurance that we would be able to get on this flight, was the last of our emergency money which has now been spent on an SAA flight that does not exist for us. 

“We believe that the SA foreign affairs department should have first confirmed that we could cross the border and catch our flight in Ghana before instructing us to pay for the tickets. 

“We also believe that as President Ramaphosa is the chairman of the African Union, it would take a simple phone call to the Ivorian president to request that the SAA flight be granted permission to land in Abidjan and that the money paid to SAA be used for any landing or rerouting cost.

“We are desperately trying to get home and have been stuck here for four weeks now. 

“There is no financial assistance coming forth from the SA government and we were told by the embassy that our families must support us here. But I am the sole breadwinner in our family. My wife doesn’t work. 

“The money that was used to pay for our tickets and not for our family’s or our subsistence has not been heard about since we sent our proof of payment to the SA ambassador in Ivory Coast.”

Muller said he and Dachadu were surviving on the goodwill of the company which had contracted them to come to Cote d’Ivoire to teach. It had provided them with rooms at its training compound and food. He said his malaria tablets had run out. 

He told Daily Maverick that since communication was poor he was not certain how many other South Africans were stranded in Cote d’Ivoire but he believed there were about 20. At least two were stuck on a ship offshore by lockdown regulations.  Muller sent us proof of payments for the tickets as well as copies of the email correspondence with the Dirco officials.

By contrast, the repatriation of German citizens from South Africa is running smoothly – with spare capacity to bring home South Africans if lockdown regulations can be cleared. The German embassy in Pretoria had already arranged 11 SAA charter flights to repatriate about 3,500 stranded Germans and other citizens from South Africa, German ambassador Schaefer said. The 12th flight was due to leave on Wednesday night and there would be seven more until April 23.

“Germany is staging the largest repatriation effort it has ever seen in its history at the moment,” Schaefer said, referring to his government’s huge operation to return its people – and others – from all over the world.

“I feel privileged to represent a country that is both capable and willing to take care of its citizens, wherever they are in the world, in these trying times.

“The cooperation with the South African government and SAA has been great. We thank our South African partners for their trust and their great effort in helping us to get our compatriots home.” DM

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