There still seem to be serious bureaucratic obstacles which could yet jeopardise any evacuation flights between South Africa and abroad — both ways.
Foreign embassies in South Africa are scrambling to arrange charter flights to evacuate thousands of their stranded citizens from here – and perhaps also return many of the 1,000-plus South Africans stuck all over the world by the global coronavirus clampdown.
Ambassadors in Pretoria are, however, still waiting anxiously to hear if the South African government will relax its rigid travel and lockdown restrictions enough to allow their planned rescue missions to go ahead.
And the stranded South Africans are also nervously awaiting a detailed and concrete response from their government to their appeal for rescue. President Cyril Ramaphosa agreed on Monday night to help “where possible and within our constraints” but did not elaborate.
Germany, Britain and Brazil are the countries known to be making major efforts to organise special flights to repatriate their nationals and other citizens from South Africa. And their ambassadors have offered to transport stranded South Africans on the same charter aircraft going the other way, if Pretoria will allow this.
Well over 1,000 South Africans are stuck in several foreign countries, many of them caught in increasingly uncomfortable conditions, such as sleeping on airport benches or facing eviction from their hotels by local authorities enforcing their own anti-coronavirus lockdowns. Many are concerned that their visas will soon expire and so they will run into the law in their host countries. Some in Africa are facing growing hostility by locals who say foreigners imported the deadly virus.
Most of the South Africans still abroad and the foreigners here in South Africa were caught by surprise when Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula unexpectedly closed South African airports even before the 21-day general lockdown which came into effect at midnight last Thursday. This trapped many South Africans in transit in airports in several countries.
The German and British governments have both over the last few days announced huge evacuation missions to return tens of thousands of their nationals from all over the world.
Germany’s ambassador to South Africa, Martin Schaefer, has the daunting task of trying to arrange charter flights to take home between 7,000 and 9,000 Germans stranded in South Africa. He is still tallying the exact number. He is also ready to carry home citizens of other European Union countries.
He told SABC on Monday that because of the South African government’s ban on foreign flight crews entering South Africa – as one of its strict measures to curb the spread of the virus – his embassy was exploring the possibility of chartering SAA aircraft and crews to conduct the rescue mission.
These aircraft could then bring back South Africans stranded in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. SAA was ready to do the job he said.
He said he hoped to start the evacuation flights this week, but added that many logistical obstacles still had to be overcome, including getting the German nationals to airports in Johannesburg and Cape Town despite the nationwide lockdown which forbids all but essential workers from leaving their homes except for essential purposes such as buying food. Schaefer said Germans and other EU member nationals seeking evacuation should visit the embassy website: www.southafrica.diplo.de
British High Commissioner to South Africa Nigel Casey is likewise wrestling with the huge challenge of trying to repatriate the thousands of British citizens stuck in South Africa, which he is also still trying to count. He said his efforts had begun after the lockdown last week but had been given added impetus by the £75-million operation which UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had announced on Monday to return stranded Britons by charter aircraft or on scheduled flights from “priority countries” with high concentrations of stranded UK citizens.
These priority countries included South Africa. South Africa’s National Command Council which is managing the coronavirus crisis had agreed in principle to the rescue operation, he said, but logistical details still had to be worked out.
Casey said Raab and his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor, had just discussed the evacuation plans by phone. Raab tweeted after the meeting: “Good to hear from my South African counterpart @PandorNaledi that evacuation flights from South Africa will continue during the 21-day #COVID19 lockdown so Brits can keep getting home.”
Casey said despite this formal approval of the evacuation mission by South Africa, he and other ambassadors were still awaiting guidelines from the South African authorities on how the tight restrictions on foreign aircrews entering South Africa and on stranded Britons getting to airports despite the stay-at-home lockdown would be waived. Casey said that the UK government would also consider using SAA to provide the charters, though with such large numbers to be transported, several charter companies would have to be contracted.
And he said Britain would also be prepared to consider repatriating stranded South Africans from Britain, if the logistics could be arranged.
Brazil’s ambassador to South Africa, Nedilson Jorge, has also been frantically busy over the last few days trying to get about 500 stranded Brazilians home. He told Daily Maverick that he was hoping that a flight of the South American airline Latam would be allowed to stop over in South Africa on its way home to Sao Paulo from Indonesia on April 1 to collect about 320 Brazilians and other South American nationals who had already booked tickets for cancelled Latam flights. The plan was for the aircraft to collect some passengers in Johannesburg and then to fly to Cape Town to pick up more, before continuing to Sao Paulo.
This would leave about 200 Brazilians still needing a flight home and so he said he had been trying to get clearance from his own government and Pretoria to charter a flight to transport them as soon as possible. If the charter did materialise, Brazil would be happy for the plane to bring back stranded South Africans when it returned to Johannesburg. However, this also depended on authorisation from the South African government.
DA MP Darren Bergman has been representing over 1,000 stranded South Africans in appeals to the South African government over the last few days to arrange charter flights to return them to South Africa.
On Monday he told Daily Maverick, “This is fully in the hands of the South African government now. This is way above my pay grade.”
In his address to the nation on Monday night, Ramaphosa said the government was “paying attention” to the appeals of stranded South Africans for help in getting home, “and we will give assistance where possible within our constraints”.
Despite this assurance and that which Raab said he had been given by Pandor, there still seem to be quite serious bureaucratic obstacles which could yet jeopardise the evacuation flights both ways. For example, South African authorities are apparently demanding extremely strict security controls over the foreigners as they travel to airports to catch the evacuation flights.
The SA government is evidently requiring that the foreign nationals should be collected in groups and taken to the airport in buses which the embassies are concerned about as this would expose them to infection by the coronavirus. They would prefer their nationals to travel to airports individually – if necessary in rental cars to prevent them from potentially exposing anyone else if they are themselves infected.
Schaefer told SABC that no German nationals would be allowed on the evacuation flights if they were infected with the virus. They would have to remain in South Africa for treatment.
The embassies and Pretoria have also not yet worked out how to deal with the flight crews on the evacuation flights. Under international aviation rules, they cannot stay on the aircraft and fly back to their departure points as they are required to sleep at least one night between long haul flights. Sleeping over in airport hotels in Johannesburg and Cape Town is one option being considered.
Meanwhile in Sao Paulo, Capetonian Markus Coetzee, who has been stranded in the airport since Friday and spent the first two nights sleeping hard on an airport bench, expressed relief that at least a plan was afoot to get him and many other South Africans home from Brazil and perhaps neighbouring countries.
“Ah good, at least there is some hope here,” he said, adding “it would be ridiculous” if the planned Brazilian charter flight from South Africa to Sao Paulo, went home empty. He added that he had managed to get one good night’s sleep on Sunday night in the airport hotel because it had only charged him half-fare – “still over 1,400 bucks”.
In Cameroon, another Capetonian, Birgit Martin, is getting nervous but pinning her hopes on the Swiss to evacuate her. She said she got stuck by the lockdown “after cycling 20,000km+ through 33 countries”.
“The Swiss have agreed for me to join their extraction flight on Wednesday, as anti-European sentiments are rising, of which I and fellow stranded overlanders have experienced a number of encounters. Even from the police.
“In the meantime, the South African embassy is asleep. And there are no guarantees the flight will make it, as decisions are changing daily, hourly. The Germans have managed to get three flights in and out, as far as I know, with fellow travellers I have met in the last week, on board.
“I was on my way from Cape Agulhas, to Nordkapp Norway, via West Africa. I doubt the borders will open before my Nigerian visa expires on April 27th. I doubt cycling (slow target) is a smart thing for the foreseeable future. Europeans are blamed for bringing the virus here.
“The smartest move seems to fly directly into the heart of the pandemic. WTF. No way to get back home in the foreseeable future.
Peter Fabricius, Daily Maverick, 31 March 2020