Covid-19

Lockdown & Stranded Travellers

Long-delayed Qatar repatriation flight finally cleared

Giancarlo Pucciatti (right) and his wife Louise with other stranded South Africans at their ‘camp’ in Frankfurt airport — before their journey home was confirmed. (Photo supplied)

After endless delays, Pretoria has finally cleared the next Qatar Airways repatriation flight for landing in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

Flight QR 1363 is now set to take off from Doha and bring hundreds of stranded South Africans home. The weary travellers, who had been left stranded abroad for even longer by the abrupt cancellation of five Qatar Airways flights from Doha to Johannesburg last week, got their first good news in a long while on Monday. Pretoria approved the airline’s first new flight for landing on Tuesday, May 12.

Natjoints, the National Joint Operations and Intelligence Structure which is managing the day to day implementation of the Covid-19 lockdown measures, approved the May 12 flight only on Monday. That sent many South Africans abroad scurrying to catch connecting flights to Doha.

However, Natjoints did not approve four more flights which Qatar Airways had scheduled to bring South Africans home and repatriate foreigners on their return flights. These flights are scheduled for 16, 20, 24 and 28 May. 

Official sources said Natjoints would consider these flights on Tuesday. 

The constant postponement of these repatriation flights has caused enormous inconvenience and stress to hundreds of South Africans still stranded abroad.

And it has also been disrupting the lives of hundreds of foreigners stranded in South Africa and hoping to catch the return flights from Johannesburg to Doha and from there to connect to flights onward to their home countries. Stranded passengers booked on these flights have almost all pointed at the South African government for causing the cancellations or delays.

These obstructions have caused tensions between the South African and Qatari governments and within South African government departments. They have embarrassed the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) which has to manage relations with the Qatar government and with Qatar Airways. Dirco was the department that approached the airline to conduct the repatriation flights, bringing in hundreds of South Africans stranded abroad and taking out foreigners stranded here.  

Dirco sources told Daily Maverick that the delays were caused mainly by the Department of Public Works underestimating the number of quarantine beds that would be needed by the returning South Africans. 

All South Africans being repatriated have to go into quarantine for two weeks. The problem with the Qatar Airways flights arose last week when a group of South Africans who had returned on a flight from Washington, were left stranded at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport for about six hours because no quarantine accommodation was available for them.

Accommodation was eventually found. The next day, 5 May, the first of six Qatar Airways flights was scheduled to leave Doha for Johannesburg. But because of the problem around quarantine exposed by the Washington flight, the South African government would not clear the flight for landing in Johannesburg until quarantine accommodation had been found. 

The flight only left early the next morning. Officials said Qatar Airways was furious about the delay and the costs it incurred and cancelled the remaining five flights. It informed the government through the Qatari embassy that the flights would only go ahead if it was given absolute guarantees that Pretoria would not again delay their departures. 

Dirco reprimanded the departments of public works and health, which are responsible for arranging the quarantine accommodation. It told them it had advised them a month ago that they should prepare at least 3,500 beds in the quarantine accommodation.

It told them to sort out the quarantine problem urgently so the Qatar flights could resume. Dirco officials told their colleagues that South Africans had a constitutional right to return home and that the South African government had a duty to help them do so. 

Last week Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille vehemently denied that her department had not prepared enough quarantine accommodation. She said she suspected some sort of scam was behind the quarantine mixup, including the fact that some returning South Africans had been transported to inferior accommodation at a Transnet campus rather than the hotels her department had booked. 

Dirco officials told the public works and health departments that with the cancellation of the Qatar Airways flights, South Africans would be left sleeping in airports. And that is what happened. 

Hundreds of South Africans were left stranded in other airports, such as Frankfurt, as Qatar Airways would not let them board flights to Doha before Pretoria had confirmed their onwards flights to Johannesburg. 

The decision to clear the May 12 flight came as a huge relief to a group of six South Africans who had just spent their fourth night in Frankfurt’s airport on Sunday, sleeping on stretchers provided by the airport chaplain, Bennita Klünemann, who was also feeding them two meals a day, providing them with daily shower vouchers, taking their clothes home to wash and persuading the German authorities to allow them access to their cargo hold luggage. 

The group immediately caught the next flight to Doha on Monday when they heard the May 12 flight was on. 

“The Germans have been fantastic, while the South African government has done nothing for us,” Giancarlo Pucciatti, a Pretoria businessman who got stuck with his wife in Italy by the coronavirus lockdown late in March and then in Frankfurt complained to Daily Maverick before the May 12 flight home was confirmed. 

He reeled off a series of unhelpful responses from various government officials to the plight of the stranded South Africans. He had started a hall of infamy, putting up messages on the walls of their temporary “camp” in Frankfurt airport. 

Pucciatti told Daily Maverick on Sunday he believed that this group would be stuck in the airport for a month. 

He and his wife Louise flew from Rome to Frankfurt last Thursday after being assured by the South African embassy in Rome that the connecting Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Johannesburg would leave on Saturday 9 May, as scheduled. This was the flight that had been postponed from 7 May after the delayed departure of the flight on 5 May. 

 

Meanwhile, hundreds of other South Africans are not so lucky. They remain stranded abroad. And many foreigners – but also South Africans who live and work abroad – remain stranded in South Africa and are also becoming desperate.

 

But they landed in Frankfurt to discover the flight had been cancelled or moved.

At Frankfurt airport, they bumped into five other South Africans who had been part of the crew of a cruise ship and had flown in from Croatia. One, a Zimbabwean, had managed to get onto an Ethiopian Airlines flight home to Harare on Saturday. The cruise ship company put up the remaining four crew members in a €350 a night airport hotel, which he and his wife could not afford. 

So Klünemann cordoned off a seating area for them in front of the Air Canada lounge next to the only shower available and brought them stretchers and bedding and meals and one shower voucher each per day – which saved them €6 each. 

“Luckily the airport has free wi-fi,” Pucciatti said he had heard from an airport official that one Chinese passenger had recently spent one month in the airport and he believed that would be their fate too.

Then luck seemed to change and he was told they could board Flight QR068 to Doha at 3.20pm on Monday to connect to Flight QR 1363 at 10.10am on Tuesday. But he remained wary. 

“It is a lucky packet… until we are on the flight I won’t believe it because I know what happened with the fiasco of the 5 May flight,” he said just before boarding in Frankfurt. 

Meanwhile, hundreds of other South Africans are not so lucky. They remain stranded abroad. And many foreigners – but also South Africans who live and work abroad – remain stranded in South Africa and are also becoming desperate. 

Those in the worst position are South African passport holders who live and work overseas. Like the 223 Hong Kong residents stranded in South Africa and represented by Warwick English. 

English said with all the focus on the South Africans stranded abroad there had been no public attention on the South Africans stranded in South Africa who had hoped to take the Qatar Airways flights returning to Doha and then travel onwards. 

He said the South African government was preventing these people from flying out because they are considered to be South Africans travelling, not going home. English said that they did not understand why the members of his group and other South Africans living and working abroad were not being allowed to return to their homes abroad, despite having the relevant documentation and approval of their host countries. 

“We have no place in South Africa, quite literally. We do not live here, we do not work here, our children do not attend school here, we don’t even have vehicles here. What reason is there to hold us all here against our will?” he told Daily Maverick

“In our group there are families who have been split apart, there are newborn children without clothes or toys, there are cancer patients who are now away from primary medical care, there are people who are about to lose their jobs and many of which have employees who will also be affected by this. 

“We are all paying rent in the most expensive country in the world and having to pay for accommodation here on top of that. But most of all, there are 223 people who are being denied their right to abode, we miss our homes! 

“Try explaining to a two-year-old that we can’t go home, that we can’t go visit her best friend, that she can’t go back to her playschool and all she keeps responding is, ‘Why? Why?’ I don’t know why, that’s what baffles me. What good does it do in keeping us here? More people in South Africa to police seems an absurd approach.

“Our group of Hong Kong residents is just one, one of many groups of hundreds if not thousands of people who are all desperate and heartbroken and confused.”

He said that Qatar Airways had discussed their plight with the South African government and had then made it very clear that the flights from Johannesburg to Qatar were not for South African passport holders, regardless of what work permit they hold, what dual citizenship they have, where they live and what they do. 

“The message is clear, no foreign passport, no exit.”

He said this message was brought home very clearly on May 5 when five members of the Hong Kong group tried to board a Qatar Airways flight from Johannesburg, following instructions given to them by the Hong Kong immigration department. 

“The Qatar Airways bus they were on was then stopped outside the airport and South African passport holders were told to stay on board as military and police staff got on the bus and yelled at them, while they sat in fear holding on to their infants for dear life. 

“They were left on the side of the road outside the airport to make their own way in the dark, after curfew, to somewhere, because they don’t live here.”

English said the group was now seeking legal advice. 

A person involved in the campaign to bring back the South Africans stranded abroad said it would make the incoming flights more affordable if as many passengers as possible took the return flights to Doha. DM

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