After a threat of legal action, the government has eased coronavirus travel restrictions slightly to enable ‘locked in’ South Africans to get on with their studies and livelihoods.
The threat of legal action appears to have persuaded the government to relax its coronavirus travel restrictions to allow thousands of South Africans living and working abroad, but trapped in South Africa, to leave the country.
On Saturday, a day after the organisation LISA- Locked in South Africa –applied for an urgent court order, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi announced he had approved essential travel for South Africans who wanted to return to countries where they are based.
“South Africans who wish to leave the Republic are permitted to depart only for the following reasons:
- Family reunion
- Take up permanent residency
- Receive medical attention.
The family reunion concession is believed to apply only to family members who have been separated form each other, not a general concession.
On Friday at a virtual press conference LISA coordinator Bev Schäfer, had announced that after failing to get any response for weeks from the departments of home affairs and international relations and cooperation, the group had sought an order from the South Gauteng High Court forcing the government to amend the travel restrictions.
“LISA is challenging the unfair discrimination against these South African citizens,” said Shäfer who is also the deputy speaker of the Western Cape legislature. .
“The SA government has clearly created winners and losers for those that are legally allowed to leave, and applied the law to some but not to others.
“The current lockdown regulations and directives provide that citizens who are dual citizens or have families abroad or are permanent residents abroad and in possession of work visas are free to travel, whereas a citizen who is not a permanent resident but has a valid work or study visa may not leave without special permission.
“This special permission is being applied inconsistently and with considerable delays causing these citizens financial damages. We have also questioned why foreign nationals could leave our shores freely but South African citizens could not.
“The discrimination thus far has ‘punished’ citizens by depriving them of their dignity, earning a livelihood, separating families and negatively impacting minor children and resulting in an estimated R60 million a loss.”
Schäfer was flanked at the virtual press conference by representatives of several different categories of South Africans living and working abroad who were trapped in South Africa by the contested travel restriction.
Mishalee Brits said she represented 166 South Africans who lived and work in Hong Kong but had been prevented from leaving South Africa. She said two years ago her husband received a job offer in Hong Kong.”So we packed up our whole life and we moved to Hong Kong. It’s now our primary residence and how we provide for our family. We have nothing left in South Africa. No house, no car, no medical aid. Returning is not an option because our whole life is there now. Our health insurance is there now, our home, our friends.
“It’s basically our livelihood. We still have to pay rent and utilities in Hong Kong. We are now facing the fear of losing our jobs because we are not allowed to return. We are so desperate to just return to our lives.”
There were also many children in the group, some younger than five and some newborn. The psychological stress of possibly losing their jobs and not knowing when they would return was rising.
Fihliwe Ngwenya said she had lost her job in South Africa in 2013 and had found a job as an English teacher in South Korea in 2014. “I’ve been living there for the past six years. It’s how I provide for my family. It’s just my livelihood. Korea has now become my primary residence.”
She said her health insurance, her phone contract and her housing contract were all in South Korea and she would now go into arrears as she was not there to pay for all of that. “I’m going to become a criminal there if I don’t pay for those.” And she said her work contract would also lapse in June if she didn’t make it back. And then she would also lose her visa.
Jadyn Wichmann, the representative of about 200 South Africans residents in New Zealand now stuck in South Africa, said many of them were essential workers with Covid-19 exemption visas which allowed them to enter and resume their work in New Zealand but they couldn’t do that because they had South African passports.
“This has been emotionally and financially draining on everybody. We have to pay for our New Zealand expenses, our rent, our cars as well as paying living and accommodation costs in South Africa. Many don’t have an income because we haven’t been working. And realistically many are worried that they might lose their jobs because it’s understandable than an employer can’t hold someone’s job indefinitely.”
“We are imploring the South African government to … recognise our constitutional rights to work and to support our families. Please, please, allow us to go.”
Aileen Swan said her husband was an airline captain who had signed a contract to start work with a Japanese airline on June 1. “I also represent roughly 350 people who are trying to get out to Asia as well as 500 that are trying to get to China”
She said most were teachers who came to South Africa when the international academic holiday started at the beginning of January and now couldn’t return.
Teachers and students in the group were expected to start their academic semester around June 1, but couldn’t return. Some came to South Africa to visit elderly parents, some came for weddings, some came to renew passports.
These people had been working abroad for many years and were paying rent. “All their belongings are there. May have left pets behind, some even have young children that are left behind.”
Kristin Harmuth, a commercial seafarer representing just under 100 seafarers, said international organisations such as the United Nations, International Maritime Organisation and International Labour Organisation had all exempted seafarers from coronavirus travel restrictions. “If we are not able to leave the country as soon as possible hundreds of us will be losing our jobs. So we’re desperate to get back to work. “
Ruwald Lindemann said he represented about 700 South Africans locked in South Africa who wanted to return to Europe. He himself was an accountant who had received a job offer in Ireland.
“I have all the documentation and Ireland’s borders are open for me and my family to go. But we cannot enter Ireland due to the fact that we cannot leave South Africa.
“We have sold everything. We are literally living in a spare room and our kids are sleeping on couches. There are a lot of people in the same situation in our group who had visas to enter Europe but were stuck in South Africa with zero income and no way to meet their obligations, either here or abroad.”
Gideon Jacobs said he represented about 2000 South Africans who needed to return to the US, of which about 1 500 were farm workers. “Some of us support our families, our farms, our farmworkers especially.” He said most of the money they earned in the US was reinvested into their parents’ farms, and the farms in the US really needed them too.
Annalien Mouton, another farm worker in the US, said their US employees were pleading with them to return as it was the start of their planting season. Most of the farmworkers would lose their jobs if they did not get there by the 1st of June and would become another burden on the South African state.
On Saturday Schäfer noted Motsoaledi’s press statement relaxing the travel regulations. “Is the Minister now scrambling after #LISA has applied to be heard in the South Gauteng High Court this week? We sincerely hope Motsoaledi is not paying lip service to the public. We call on the Minister to urgently gazette the change with immediate effect and show the thousands of South Africans that are eligible to leave, he is serious and that they are able to board the available flights this coming week,” she said.
Special flight arrangements would need to be determined due to the general travel ban which remains in place.
In his press statement, Motsoaledi said South Africans wishing to return to the countries where they reside should have the following: a copy of their valid South African passport; a letter confirming their admissibility under the current circumstances from the embassy or other diplomatic/consular representative of the country they want to travel to; and proof of means of travel such as air or bus tickets and the intended date of departure.
They should send an email to [email protected]. The department would reply with an email to the travellers who met the criteria to enable them to proceed with their travel arrangements. Those applying as a group could send one email with the supporting documents for each member of the group. He gave the number 0800 60 11 90 for public enquiries about the arrangements. DM