South Africa

Far From Home

South Africans are still stranded in pockets around the world

Most South Africans still unable to get home are scattered around Africa, New Zealand, Argentina and in Asia or on ships. (Photo: Rawpixel)

The Home Away From Home website is full of desperate stories of people stuck in Cambodia, Laos, Israel, US and many other places and trying to get home by any way possible.

Government says it has brought home more than 3,000 South Africans stranded abroad since late March. But many of our citizens are still far from home.

Most South Africans still unable to get home are scattered around Africa, New Zealand, Argentina and in Asia or on ships.

Ryan Muller, for example, has been stranded in Abidjan for 50 days, with a group of about 20 other South Africans, getting desperate as he runs out of malaria medicine and money. With a bit of luck, a private charter will get him home next week. Not so lucky, according to some reports, are around 100 South Africans stuck in Iraq, running desperately low on food. And countless others. 

On Sunday 3 May the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) said in a statement that since the start of the travel lockdown on 26 March it had facilitated the repatriation by air of more than 3,000 stranded South Africans.

Since the original number of South Africans who registered with the country’s embassies abroad that they were stranded and needed help getting home was 3,639, that would suggest that almost all are home or will soon be. 

Dirco also announced that on Sunday about 275 South Africans who had been stranded in the US had returned and that two more flights from the US would come in on Monday and Saturday – while about 600 South Africans stuck in Bangkok, Thailand, Jakarta and Bali in Indonesia would be repatriated. 

That all adds up to more than 3,639. But, as Darren Bergman, the DA MP who has been helping repatriate stranded South Africans through the Home Away From Home campaign, said, “unfortunately the list seems to be evergrowing and the criteria [for who the government will help to get home] seem to change.

“So, if anyone had a real target in their head, now it would still be at best a thumbsuck. By the end of the week we would have repatriated 100% of our target on paper but we know we have people that registered with us initially that are still stuck in New Zealand, Argentina and some of the islands in Asia.” Some were also on ships. 

“This week, some formidable efforts were made and this momentum cannot be lost,” he added. 

Bergman may have jolted the government into action with a statement he put out on April 26 in which he said if the remaining 1,000 or so stranded South Africans were not brought home within a week, the government would have to provide food parcels, medicine and shelter to the most vulnerable of them immediately.

Other national airlines are helping. One stranded South African in Doha received an email from Qatar Airways this week promising it would have six flights from Doha to Johannesburg, on 5, 7, 9, 12, 14 and 16 May.

But one of the passengers scheduled to board the flight in Doha on Tuesday evening posted on the Home Away From Home website that, “It appears that a flight scheduled to leave Doha (Qatar) on route to Johannesburg is being delayed right now because it does not have permission to land in South Africa.

“These flights South Africans from various countries booked after their respective embassies informed them of these special repatriation flights. Can anyone shed more light on this? If South African embassies/DIRCO got the ball rolling with Qatar Airways, it does not make any sense for these flights not to have permission to depart for Johannesburg.”

Miles van der Molen, the CEO of CemAir, has also been helping out. He believes there are probably still about 1,000 South Africans scattered around Africa in small pockets. With his company’s 90-seater aircraft he has already flown five flights across Africa bringing some others home. 

On Thursday, CemAir will fly to Kinshasa, on Friday to Luanda and on Saturday to Nairobi and then Kigali to pick up South Africans and other nationalities who want to get to South Africa. Next week it is scheduled to undertake a major flight to Morocco and then back via Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Abidjan and then Johannesburg, collecting small pockets of South Africans along the way. 

One of those will be Ryan Muller who has been stuck in Abidjan for 50 days after travel restrictions were suddenly imposed in the last week of March. 

When Daily Maverick spoke to him almost a month ago, he was already desperate, in part because his malaria tablets had run out. He and the rest of the group of some 20 South Africans had already paid R7,000 each – at the urging of the South African embassy – to buy tickets to fly home on an SAA flight returning from Frankfurt and scheduled to stop in Accra, Ghana.

But the embassy could not persuade Ghana to let them cross the border, so they never made the flight. Now he is pinning his hopes on CemAir and it looks like this time his hopes will not be dashed as Van der Molen said the flight to Abidjan next week was on. 

CemAir’s website posts a notice saying as word spread about its rescue flights, “we have received a flood of communication from people who are stranded and in many cases their situation is becoming desperate. 

“We are continuously looking at how we can assist but it’s been difficult to accurately determine how many are stuck in which centres and who is really serious about getting home.”

It urges anyone who knows of South Africans stranded along the routes of his next few flights to get them to email on [email protected] and title the email with the city and the number of people: eg, “Kinshasa 3 passengers”.

The Home Away From Home website is full of desperate stories of people stuck in Cambodia, Laos, Israel, US and many other places and trying to get home by any way possible. 

 

Despite their long delay, the group from Washington may eventually have struck it lucky. Where you end up seems to be a matter of chance. Some get sent to hotels like the Radisson or Balalaika or Indaba. Others end up in state-owned enterprise accommodation – such as Transnet or Eskom – and mostly complain.

 

On April 30, Nattaniah Kuhn posted that she was in Cambodia and couldn’t cross the border to Thailand to catch the SAA charter from Bangkok which Dirco announced would leave for South Africa on Friday. 

She appealed to Bergman for help, asking, “Is there any way to help pressure the Thai government to allow us to cross so that we can make this flight? I’m being sponsored the flight fare, so I’m a paying person.

“If we can’t get on this flight, there are not enough people in Cambodia to warrant another flight and they will abandon us here. Airlines are already going bankrupt, so future travel is already problematic. 

“I’m completely dependent on food parcels from people and a room is provided for me too. I’m desperate to get home.”

But that route didn’t seem to work and so instead she got to Seoul somehow. On Tuesday morning she posted, “We took off from Seoul and landed in Doha.”

But on Tuesday evening she was one of those stuck once again, apparently by South African red tape, because she posted, “Sat in the plane for 2 hours and had to disembark. Jhb has NOT signed the pax list yet. So now we wait to see what happens.”

And then when the stranded South Africans get home, they have to go into quarantine for two weeks and that has also had its hiccups. 

On Monday more than 250 passengers on the repatriation flight from Washington arrived at OR Tambo, disembarked and boarded minibuses but then waited for some six hours because of an organisational mix-up about where they were to be quarantined, according to Bergman.

Eventually, they were booked into luxurious hotels near the airport and in Sandton. A Dirco spokesperson did not respond to a query about what the problem had been. 

Despite their long delay, the group from Washington may eventually have struck it lucky. Where you end up seems to be a matter of chance. Some get sent to hotels like the Radisson or Balalaika or Indaba. Others end up in state-owned enterprise accommodation – such as Transnet or Eskom – and mostly complain. Like Emily Huet who posed on the Home Away From Home Facebook page on Monday:

“Absolutely shocking facilities at the transnet. No wifi so how are we supposed to conduct business whilst in quarantine? Food and water only arrived at 11pm, after 3 hours. disgusting and cold. Mouldy and inhumane. Glad to be back but this is really unacceptable.”

To which Sasa Yawa replied from somewhere out there in the world: “Please stop complaining there are way bigger issues to be dealt with be grateful you’re home some of us are still waiting and you want to complain about Wi-Fi please open your eyes and thank God you’re home..”

By contrast Kyle Pillay, a chef from Nashville, posted on Monday, “Day one of quarantine at the Capital hotel. 👏🏼 It’s a great hotel with amazing service. The food is good and handled with care. Very luxurious hotel. Finally home!!” DM

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