Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko
Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko

South African Airways: much-maligned, pilloried, desperate and mismanaged, it seems now that the disaster of the so-called flag carrier has taken on its own menacing gravity.

This reality – of how SAA has spread its awful pox to everything it touches – became traumatically evident in, of all places, gate B28 at Frankfurt Airport last Saturday.

Now, as you might know, the German national psyche is one of conscientiousness, strict adherence to rules and an often painful meticulousness. It’s an ingrained part of the cultural fibre.

It is also why, watching a German SAA official – in her mid-40s, neat and poised with tightly pinned-back dark hair – collapse into tears outside gate B28 was so sobering.

For her sins, she’d been assigned the desperate task of using the PA system to beg for two volunteers from a crowd of South Africans who’d been trying to board a flight back home for more than a month to stay behind. Even the German character isn’t immune to the pox of the SAA.

First, to tell the tale of how we got to Flughafen Frankfurt am Main, let’s rewind.

In the early weeks of March, before anyone really knew that the planet was about to be dumped into a lock-down crap-fire of death, fear and distress, people all around the world found themselves stranded in countries that weren’t their own.

Some of them had the misfortune to be South African. And this is where the tragedy of idiocy meets the misfortune of common sense.

Because the SA government’s early lockdown was a decisive and necessary move to halt the spread of Covid-19, shutting down the borders to international travellers who brought the virus to the country was smart. Even if it also left thousands of South Africans stranded across the globe. Enter the tragedy of bureaucratic idiocy, a role shared in this drama by the department of international relations & co-operation (Dirco) and SAA.

I was one of those stranded. A visit to London to celebrate my girlfriend’s birthday happened to coincide with the shutdown of Planet Earth, and a two-week stay became three months living in a 55m² flat that was a tight squeeze for the three people who now had the unexpected (and possibly indefinite) pleasure of calling it home.

At first, it wasn’t clear how anyone was actually going to get home. Dirco held press conferences, made statements, and an assortment of confusing rules dribbled out. Still, there was good news: South Africans abroad were welcome to come home, though they’d have to be quarantined for two weeks. Which, I suppose, was fair enough.

But then Dirco’s promises began to unravel. First, it posted an announcement saying it would help repatriate South Africans, here’s an e-mail address; in fact, here are two e-mail addresses; just tell us where you are and we’ll sort you out.

E-mails to those addresses, however, vanished into the ether, yielding not so much as an “out of office” message. The embassies, meanwhile, had barricaded up. Physical services had stopped entirely. And for good measure, one by one the airlines still running flights into SA – like Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, Qatar and KLM – began to disappear off the screen, blinking out like snuffed candles.

A flight that existed on Monday wouldn’t be there on Tuesday. I booked myself onto three such ghost flights. And a privately organised charter flight trying to fly out to London to pick up stranded South Africans had the rug pulled from under it at the last minute.

British Airways was given the go-ahead to fly stranded UK nationals out of SA, yet it wasn’t allowed to take South Africans back on its empty planes. The common-sense deficit was growing.

SAA to the rescue, maybe

As the stress levels grew, one name began to crop up more and more: the recently bankrupted, controversy-ridden SAA. The national carrier had, it seems, been given permission to conduct mercy flights to repatriate SA citizens. It was a shining moment of patriotism: don’t you worry about corona, your flag-bearing national carrier is coming to get the country’s sons and daughters.

Soon a roster of SAA’s mercy missions was posted. Curiously, London wasn’t on it. Maybe there weren’t enough people in the UK to warrant a dedicated flight. But wait, there was one from Frankfurt – if I could get to Frankfurt, home was possible.

Still, it would be an ordeal. First, you had to apply to be on the flight on the SAA website. But that wasn’t a ticket; you were only given a reference number, and told to ask the embassy in the country you were in to provide a letter of laissez passer (passage) to be eligible for the flight. Only then could you pay SAA to confirm your seat on the plane.

Well, to be fair, you weren’t actually told any of this. Rather you found this out after hours spent frantically scrolling through Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups, being given advice from strangers, calling Dirco numbers that rang ceaselessly, and sending e-mails to the apparently dead.

But then my letter of passage arrived. “Congratulations, Mr Hall, we’ll let you go to Frankfurt to fly home,” it effectively said. I paid the money, now I just had to get to Frankfurt. Lufthansa had a flight I’d had my eye on that landed that same morning. It was tight, but I’m a pretty seasoned traveller, I decided to go for it. Except, it had quintupled in price. I gritted my teeth, and paid the money.

Walking through the doors of Heathrow Terminal 2 last Friday morning was an eerie experience. To say it was empty doesn’t convey the profound desolation of the place. The lumpy, glass-fronted behemoth that is usually frantic with a mass of humanity was a deserted mausoleum to a past era. There were maybe three human beings in the entire terminal.

I went to the Lufthansa check-in counter, presented my passport and my special letter. I was apparently one of many South Africans on this flight. The Lufthansa assistant knew what she was doing and processed me quickly. My bag was checked through all the way to Johannesburg.

I ghosted through passport control and security and emerged into the huge dome of the duty-free area amid an echoing, hushed silence. Nothing was open. Three small brown birds hopped around the floor pecking at imaginary flecks of bread.

The flight to Germany was short and sharp. Willkommen in Deutschland (Welcome to Germany).

This is where the story changed. Now that I was in the hands of SAA, things were about to get very real.

Misplaced euphoria at gate B28

When I arrived at gate B28 in Frankfurt airport on Friday morning there was a sprawling mass of South Africans spread out on all the benches and seats. Every second of these seats was roped off with a strip of green tape to enforce social distancing, something the Germans take very seriously. The South Africans took it somewhat less seriously. There was, in fact, almost a festive atmosphere.

People swapped stories about where they’d come from, how they got stuck and the hardships they’d endured to get here. There was an ethereally beautiful influencer-looking couple who’d made it from Nicaragua – I would later appear in the background of one of their Instagram posts.

There was also a bunch of huge guys who got stuck in Basque, Spain, on a rugby tour. One of them had no way of fitting his surgical mask over his enormous beard. There was a group of people who had been teaching English in Kazakhstan and had been sleeping in the airport for a week. People who had been stuck on cruise ships were also there. I met a guy who was going back to bury his recently passed father.

A hundred emotional, fraught and arduous journeys had brought us all to gate B28.

But at that moment there was a bubbling of energy; the promise of home. People wore plakkies; some guy was playing hip hop. It was the shared congeniality of relief.

And yet, there were two blinking red lights I was struggling to ignore: first, the aircraft connected to gate B28 was a Lufthansa plane, not an SAA one. Second, the flight information board said: Johannesburg – Moscow.

Moscow? That’s a funny way to get to Joburg, isn’t it?

Not to worry, we were told: apparently, we’re picking up 79 South Africans in Moscow. Fair enough. More good-natured Saffers just desperate to touch home soil again.

It was at about that time that the first ripples of mild panic began to spread.

Some people had boarding passes; others didn’t. This last group were sent e-tickets, but not the means to check in ahead of time and get a boarding pass. And I was one of those.

Also, it then emerged that there was a big group who’d flown in from France whose bags weren’t checked onto this flight, and no-one knew where those bags were. You can see how arriving in -2ºC winter Joburg for a government-enforced two-week quarantine with only the clothes you’re standing in might rattle you. But there was no-one behind the counter to answer any questions.

Then, as if sensing the mood, two ladies in blue SAA livery arrived. It prompted an immediate scrum to get to them. They made an announcement: everyone without a boarding pass had to present themselves. A lot of us lined up. A knot of the lost-bags people huddled off to the side, apparently being attended to. Every official was now on their phone.

The unofficial leader of the no-bags people was a blonde lady with mild Karen-energy. But no one minded, at that point, since it was being used for the forces of good in this case.

Then came the first stroke of the sword. I and bunch of others were handed temporary boarding passes: it turned out that we were on standby. Standby. For a government-sanctioned rescue mission.

Apparently they’d overbooked the Moscow leg. There were a lot of us in this same situation. A lot of us. So we waited.

Finally, the plane arrived. And it wasn’t a big plane, but rather an old Airbus A340. The ripples of concern cascaded into a wave of raised voices. There was quite clearly no way they were going to get all of us on that plane.

People were starting to mutter things in frustration to no-one in particular. One of these was a guy with a strong Scottish accent who’d been trying to get back to his wife for three months.

Nonetheless, the SAA cabin crew started boarding people. The crew, ominously dressed in hazmat gear, began scanning people with temperature guns. On the side, the patience of the group on standby turned to panic, as people began muscling back to the counter.

The less harassed of the two SAA officials looked at us, tapped away at her keyboard and magically, some boarding passes appeared. We were then hustled through a side door. None of us was scanned by the lady with the temperature gun.

Anyway, it was fine; at least we were on the plane. The air of levity returned: people resumed the normal shuffling ritual of being on a plane: bumping each other to get to their seats, taking out Kindles or books. The earlier good humour was back, nourished by the bubbly excitement of homecoming. Even if we had to go to Moscow first.

Time dragged on. About an hour later, the curtain that separates the shabby unsightliness of economy class from the hallowed peace of rich people was drawn. Something was definitely wrong.

It turns out one emergency door wouldn’t close properly. We couldn’t fly without it being fixed and cleared by the officials, so they were going to fix it. People in high-vis jackets began trudging through the cabin.

At the three-hour mark an Afrikaans lady came over the PA and told us: “We’re going to serve you lunch while we wait for the door to get fixed.” The hazmat cabin crew paraded up and down offering chicken or beef. At which point the Afrikaans lady came back on the PA: they couldn’t fix the door. We were told: “You’ll all [have to disembark] and we’ll try again tomorrow.”

But there was a problem. Lots of people were there on expired visas, or no visas – present on the strength of a one-page letter from Dirco that said: “Let this person into your airport so that they can get on the flight home.” These people couldn’t leave the airport. German border control didn’t care. They would have to sleep there.

The rest of us were shuttled to a hotel for the night.

Dutch courage

The next day, we met downstairs at 12pm to go back to the airport.

But during the night it all began to go wonky: in the background, KLM had been trying to negotiate landing rights in SA. Which apparently they’d won, because there was a plane of people going back to SA on a KLM flight that day, before our second attempt on SAA was due to take off. During the night, some people with valid visas or European passports had gotten e-mails saying: “Please go and present yourself to be on the KLM flight.” I was not one of these people.

For the rest of us, at 12pm, a string of buses arrived and the stranded passengers of SAA Flight 2196 dutifully loaded up their bags and headed back to the airport.

But no surprises, something else had apparently gone wrong. WhatsApps were flying around the group. It turned out the SAA plane was too full. Anyone with a valid Schengen visa or European passport was asked to rather go on the KLM flight to alleviate the crush. Some of us said: “Okay, we’ll do that.”

When we arrived at the airport there was a huge queue to get re-issued with boarding passes for the SAA flight, and off to the side was another queue for the KLM flight.

Very quickly, cracks began to show. The KLM flight was due to leave in 30 minutes, but the queue was not moving. A man in a grey suit appeared – apparently the boss of Frankfurt Airport. He angrily snapped that everyone had to go on the flight on which they were originally booked; none of this messing about with other planes. Besides, the KLM flight was due to leave any minute, and it wasn’t going to be held back.

However, a large group of people were given tickets for the KLM flight which now wouldn’t take them. And their previous seats on the SAA flight had been cancelled. These people were not on either plane now. Nobody was telling them what to do or where to go. They were just … there.

The raised voices of the previous night got wobbly with tears. But this was just the calm before the storm: the real shouting was still to come.

It turned out that the emergency door still hadn’t been fixed. The plane could take off, but the door couldn’t open – and the regulations stipulate that there be a specific ratio of operable emergency doors to passengers. For that to happen, we would have to shed 100 passengers. This is what the sweating German SAA official at the counter told me. People had to be left behind.

Just as I was getting my new boarding pass, to the left of me the guy whose father had died was told he could not get onto the plane. He lost it. His face was blotchy with emotion and his voice cracked as he tried to shout. The official processing him was a man in his late 50s — around the age this guy’s father would most likely have been. And he was staring at a young man who’d been through hell, who had lost his cool just trying to get back home to a dad he’ll never see again.

The SAA official was visibly upset, and deflated. He understood. He gave the young man a boarding pass, and then he took him aside, and apologised. This white-haired German man, filled with misery at the position he was in, said softly that he was sorry, and awkwardly tried to extend a hand. It’s not a fun day at SAA when you have to tell a young man whose father is dead that he can’t go home.

Then, another bombshell: everyone with European passports or valid Shengen visas who hadn’t been given boarding passes yet wouldn’t be getting on the flight. It was full.

Then, the Scottish guy lost it – the sort of full-throated anger of Glasgow let loose on a Saturday afternoon in Frankfurt.

At first, the worried, stymied SA officials said nothing – there was a sort of fuzzy washing of the hands: “Yes, we understand it’s not your fault; no, we can’t let you on; no, we don’t know where you’re going to stay; no, we don’t know how we’re going to get you home. Please stand over there.”

There were tears. More people began shouting. The lucky ones, those clutching boarding passes, stood around for a moment, feeling a tangible relief so deep it was almost sweating out our pores, mixed with an awkward guilt that the bond of solidarity between us all had been broken. We were now no longer together in all of this. Then we walked away; we had a plane to catch.

(Later on, word would filter down that the European group would apparently be put on a flight on Tuesday, three days later. It wasn’t clear to us if any of them had anywhere to stay until then.)

The final twist

So, gate B28 – the return. Or maybe the revenge of gate B28. Because that is where the final twist in the quest to return home would happen.

We waited, like we’d done before. Everyone was a bit shaken by, first, the KLM debacle and then the abrupt excision of a chunk of passengers.

A woman was called by name to report to the check-in counter and she burst into tears (it turns out they were just changing her seat). The guy whose dad died had gone to find a beer from a vending machine. Everyone was on edge. The SAA crew then began to check us in, section by section.

The hazmat lady with her temperature gun came back. This time I was scanned: 36.5ºC, which meant I didn’t have Covid-19, and could get onto the plane.

Then the queue stalled. Up ahead, the SAA officials were looking really worried. They were all on their phones again, and there was a hum of intense, low-voiced talking.

The demeanour of the main SAA official, the slim brunette in her 40s, shifted through the gears rapidly: from harassed, to angry, to desperate, to crying. It turned out a young family with what must be a baby born into a world in lockdown had been mis-checked in. The father couldn’t get onto the plane. The mom was trying to shut out the world by playing with her child, but she couldn’t help it, she was also crying. Big hot angry tears.

Which is when we were begged by the German lady from SAA, through her own tears, for two volunteers to give up their seats.

A big man with long hair whom I recognised from the bus stepped forward. Every person in gate B28 clapped and cheered. (Happily, it later turned out the captain of the flight had made two jump seats available, and the volunteer made it on after all).

We had been pulled so deeply and without mercy to the event horizon of SAA’s crushing malaise, and yet somehow the people standing there had managed not to fall in.

An hour later, when the plane lifted off the runway, we all applauded.

When we landed in Moscow, it was another slice of swirling chaos. Every seat had been double-booked. In the end, people just took whatever seat they could find, people shuffled around to keep families together. Again, we applauded when the plane took off again.

It was the sound of relief, and a belief that none of us felt entitled to hold until that point.

  • Hall is a film director based in Joburg. He can be contacted here


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