South Africans say they feel ‘abandoned”

JV Bergh of Brackenfell training the rig manager in Saudi Arabia.

South Africans stranded abroad are running out of funds, chronic medication with visas expiring and many suffer prejudice as foreigners – the people who brought coronavirus to their countries. Many feel abandoned by the South African government and are desperate for help, their hopes for a rescue mission fading fast. Others are stranded in countries with inefficient embassies.

Earlier this month we wrote about some of the South Africans stranded in foreign countries (Read more). Now we catch up with them.

Michael and Karen De Jongh of Plattekloof are in Portugal. They have been offered a chartered SAA flight back for Thursday April 16 but cannot take it because the costs are prohibitive – more than R70 000 for both of them. Added to this is the possibility that they could be exposed to the virus in transit. They have been self isolating since Wednesday March 11.

JC Bergh from Brackenfell got stuck in Saudi Arabia after his flight got cancelled on Sunday March 15. He was due to return because his grandmother’s health was deteriorating. It will be his gran’s birthday on Tuesday April 28 and they fear this might be her last. She doesn’t understand what’s happening and thinks she has been abandoned because no one is visiting her due to the lockdown, says Mr Bergh. 

He says the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has extended the international travel ban until Sunday May 31. This leaves him and many other South Africans stranded unless the South African government through its embassy in Saudi Arabia arranges a repatriation flight. “It’s a scary, distressing, depressing rollercoaster from hell and the uncertainty is debilitating,” says Mr Bergh. 

Don and Anne Saunders, 62 and 60, from Edgemead are stranded in Phuket Thailand on what was meant to have been a dream trip. They feel abandoned and are running out of money. “The local people do not want us here,” they say. 

“They call us ‘shitty farang’. They believe we foreigners brought the virus to Thailand. The animosity is horrible. This is not a holiday. Our biggest challenge is to accept that we have been abandoned by our country,” they say.

Almost six months pregnant, Amy George from Crawford, her son Cohen, 10 and her partner Lyle Hartzenberg are stranded in Bali. Qatar Airways have changed their flights to Saturday April 18 but it is unconfirmed. They have been in contact with SAA via Twitter who are telling them to get in touch with the embassy, which they have done. And now they wait. Ms George says their Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) liaison keeps saying they are waiting on a response.

Tristan Beebe from Hout Bay has been working in Saudi Arabia and was told to find his way home by the end of April. His company has now allowed him to stay at the compound until the South Africa lockdown is over and then they will fly him home. Allen Sharpe from Strandfontein is one of about 35 South Africans stuck in Cusco, Peru.

Jennifer-Lee Dippenaar from Observatory is stuck in Bali, Indonesia where she has been studying with accommodation and food included. Due to the pandemic, her course has been cancelled as has her air ticket, with no refund. She says tickets that are on sale for the end of April are double what they usually cost – R15 000. Indonesia has given foreigners an emergency visa but will charge her a fine for everyday she overstays and she is scared that she could end up in gaol. Ms Dippenaar has registered with DIRCO and is part of a WhatsApp group for Bali and has someone helping her with accommodation. But as of Wednesday April 15 she has to sleep at the airport.

Mario Boffa of West Beach is one of 200 South Africans stranded in Thailand. He says circumstances there are rapidly deteriorating. Thai citizens are angry with foreigners and accuse them of being the cause of bringing Covid-19 to their country.

Mr Boffa says they have arranged a private charter and have approached the DIRCO, the South African Embassy in Bangkok and to Darren Bergman who started the social media page Home Away from Home, but are getting no response. “Our visas and funds are running out and some are in urgent need of medication, sleeping on the street or at airports,” he says. “We are pleading to get back to our families,” he says.

Mr Bergman says he is not allowed to get involved in matters around a repatriation flight or what is supposed to be a DIRCO operation. “There are clear lines set and if I was dare to cross them, I would find myself in a lot of trouble and the integrity of our project could be completely ruined in one fell swoop,” says Mr Bergman. He adds that they are dealing with 3 000 people on 15 channels, with daily WhatsApps well over 1 000, 300 emails and 100 phone calls. “Our project is to assist people in communication and not in the actual planning of the flights,” he points out.

Over 300 people have been repatriated so far but with the possible closure of South African Airways, what’s next? 

Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan has rejected the SAA business rescue practitioners’ request for a further R10 billion.

SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali says over the past two weeks, the state-owned airline operated 20 chartered passenger flights and two cargo-only flights to Germany and to China.

DIRCO Minister Naledi Pandor says 1 471 South Africans are stuck abroad and they continue to repatriate them. Challenges are with those stuck in Thailand, Bali and Bangkok. Another challenge is those stuck in Peru as some are stuck in towns a five-hour drive away. With Peru in lockdown the country is not allowing road-based transport, says Ms Pandor.

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula says the transport department would allow repatriation, provided the person had a fully paid return ticket.