Close to  1,500 South Africans stranded aboard have asked the government to assist with getting them home, international relations & co-operation minister Naledi Pandor said on Tuesday.

We empathise with their plight and are doing whatever is within our means to assist them to be safe, as comfortable as possible and to travel back to SA,” Pandor said at a media briefing.

“Our missions abroad have been collating data of South Africans stranded at airports and cities across the world as countries implement measures aimed at curbing the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Of the 1,471 who have contacted SA missions, 723 are students, 204 are people who are working overseas, 224 tourists and 320 who have not told government what status they have but indicated they wish to return, she said.

The minister said she is confident the number is accurate as it is based on people who have approached the government for assistance. There may be more people in need of assistance.

Pandor said she has directed that priority be given to those who are stranded at airports, running out of accommodation, the elderly and the sick.

Many South Africans who had travelled overseas before the 21-day national lockdown was announced were not able to return home as all ports of entry into the country were closed.

Transport minister Fikile Mbalula on Tuesday announced amendments to aviation directives, now allowing citizens and permanent residents stuck overseas to return home and for foreign nationals stuck in SA to be repatriated.

“All international and domestic passenger flights are still prohibited, irrespective of the risk category of the country of origin, except those flights especially authorised by the ministry of transport, for the evacuation of South African nationals in foreign countries,” he said.

Mbalula said South African citizens who want to  come home can return, but only if they have a fully paid return ticket. On arrival in SA they will be subjected to mandatory quarantine of up to 21 days. The crew from these flights will be allowed to disembark but are also subjected to mandatory quarantines.

He emphasised that any South Africans returning to the country will not be allowed to just go home, but will have to go into quarantine.

Mbalula said the repatriation of foreign nationals from SA back to their respective countries is allowed, provided that foreign countries charter their aircraft to SA without passengers, only crew. The crew will not be allowed to disembark.

He said reports that ailing state-owned airline SAA would be repatriating German tourists stuck in SA were true, but this was at the cost of the German government.

Pandor said that given the difficulties associated with travel restrictions, the government appealed to those who could afford to return home to do so at their own cost.

She said some have started organising themselves into groups and have approached the department of international relations to ensure their safe passage home. Others were students whose accommodation in crowded dormitories forced them to come home.

Pandor said some South Africans have explored options such as arranging private charter flights to SA and that this could be done  in co-operation with their travel insurance companies, their sponsors or in groups with other citizens in the same country.

“Some of our citizens have indicated that they are able to bring themselves home. My department will facilitate with logistics and consular services to enable them travel back safely,” Pandor said.

“For those who cannot depart, my department will be liaising with families and friends in SA to contribute to the payment for accommodation.”

She said for the rest of the South Africans who might not be stranded or distressed, the government has advised that they remain where they are to reduce movement until the end of the lockdown.