By late May more than 6,300 South Africans had been flown home safely from abroad. Picture: BLOOMBERG/SIMON DAWSON
By late May more than 6,300 South Africans had been flown home safely from abroad. Picture: BLOOMBERG/SIMON DAWSON

There is growing frustration and desperation among more than 200 South Africans who have been stranded abroad since countries across the world closed their borders in March.

About 30 South Africans in Lima, Peru, are still awaiting a final answer from the government as to when they will be able to get back to SA, while at least another 200 are being kept on a cruise liner, anchored in a canal in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

From early April, the department of international relations & co-operation assured those stranded abroad it “is doing whatever it can to assist them” and by late May more than 6,300 South Africans had been flown back home safely. However, a number of South Africans, some of whom spoke to Business Day on condition of anonymity, say their calls have largely gone unanswered, despite having started out nearly three months ago.

Peru’s lockdown, implemented in mid-March, has since been extended to the end of June and some of the South Africans stranded in the country’s capital are not only running out of patience, but are said to be low on funds and medication as well.

Anneline Peters said her prescription medication for chronic hypertension ran out at the end of March. While also low on funds, she has resorted to buying medication over the counter, which she said her doctor advised against. Despite informing the department via e-mail on March 31, Peters said it has yet to respond.

The department has yet to respond to Business Day’s questions, the first of which was sent on Thursday.

The concern for this group is highlighted by the fact that Peru has the highest number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in South America after Brazil. It has recorded more than 4,500 deaths since confirming its first case in early March.

“The frustration is worsened by the infrequent and unsubstantial communication we receive,” another South African said. “After hearing ‘We are working on something’ for 11 weeks, we are fed up and it is no longer an adequate response to our concerns.”

Like those in Peru, the lockdown is taking a heavy toll on the South Africans aboard the Emerald Princess. While there are said to be no confirmed Covid-19 cases on the ship, the group has been exercising self-isolation, and until recently, spent most of their day alone in their cabins, some of which do not have windows.

“We believe that our government should be thinking of us and doing everything possible to get us back home,” said a South African from Johannesburg. “So the feeling is that we are actually left out in the cold and when we actually need them the most we’re getting no response.”

Meanwhile, Business Day understands that Dutch authorities have arranged all the necessary visas while Carnival Corporation, the company that has been housing and feeding the group, is said to be arranging the repatriation and paying for it.

Morale plunged especially when passengers, all of whom are understood to be employees of various cruise ships, were packed and ready for a repatriation flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg on June 5, only for the flight to be cancelled.

The group was told other colleagues had been repatriated, but according to their captain over the ship’s intercom, “we were unable to secure SA government approval because of limited quarantine facilities being available in Johannesburg”. 

The department of public works denied this. With 136 operational facilities nationwide, the department’s Zara Nicholson said, “there is no shortage of space in quarantine facilities at this stage” and there were 12,278 beds available. The department of transport has yet to respond to requests for comment on the government allegedly not granting landing rights.

The cancellation, the captain explained, also delayed the movement of the crew of another ship to the Emerald Princess, as well as more than 40 Zimbabweans who were expected to join the South Africans on the flight.

“It is absolutely pathetic and they don’t understand with how many lives they are actually tampering with,” another South African said of the government, warning of the dire mental and emotional state of some of those on board. “These people are desperate. Some of them have been on ships since November.”

A third, however, said that given “the mess in SA”, they would prefer to remain on the ship, with three daily meals, medical support and access to facilities.

According to the captain’s announcement, there are plans to reschedule the flight for June 11, pending approval from SA authorities.

Those still in South America may be on an SAA flight home from São Paulo on June 15. But with only a week before departure, it is unclear whether the South Africans in Lima could make it to Brazil on time, as they have had no communication from SA authorities apart from receiving consent forms for quarantine.

Valerie Edmondson Bolaños, founder of Warrior Angels Rescue (War), a US-based organisation that has been helping the South Africans in Peru, said one of War’s biggest challenges is co-ordinating with multiple governments.

On the criticism from the stranded, Bolaños said “the SA embassies in Peru, Mexico, and Panama have been genuinely working hard to co-ordinate a viable and affordable solution on behalf of their citizens and residents”.

This is little consolation for those desperate to get home. As one said via Whatsapp from Lima, “Our mental health and patience has been stretched to the limit and we are now once again, all calling out for help.”

vandermerwep@businesslive.co.za