/ 20 April 2020

South Africans in Saudi fear they will miss their flight home

Saa Cut Off To Protect Other Soes

93 South African citizens have been repatriated from Saudi Arabia. But another group of about 40 missed their flight after they struggled to get permits to travel from Saudia Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, to Jeddah. They have since obtained permits and now have renewed hope. Read the full story.

Without permits to travel to the airport, 40 South Africans fear they will be stranded in Saudi Arabia with no work to sustain them during the country’s lockdown.

The group was preparing to take a 10-hour bus ride from Saudia Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, to Jeddah to catch a flight to Johannesburg. The flight is set to leave at 9am on Tuesday.

But the lockdown in Saudi Arabia means the group needs to obtain permits to make the trip and by noon on Monday they had not managed to do so.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia reported 1 088 new Covid-19 cases, raising the Middle Eastern country’s total to 9 362, with a death toll of 97. 

In March, Saudi Arabia halted entry and exit into Riyadh, Mecca, Medina and Jeddah as part of its measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. In early April, authorities imposed total lockdowns in several major cities.

Lockdowns have had an unprecedented toll on economies globally, forcing many companies to close their door and leaving workers without jobs.

For South Africans living and working in Saudi Arabia, the lockdown has left them with little choice but to leave, as the country’s controversial immigration system requires them to be sponsored by a local employer.

Adriaan Hague, who was working on the construction of three restaurants in Saudi Arabia, says he was meant to be there for only five weeks. With work completed on the restaurants, Hague says he has been trying to get back home since the lockdown began. “Now we have no ways of getting back no matter what we try.”

Elton Kruger moved to Saudia Arabia three years ago to work as a sports coach. But now the gym he works for has “gone under”.

“They rewrote our contracts and offered less than 25% of my original salary. I can make more back at home,” Kruger says. 

The offer is “basically a retrenchment”, he says. “They are saying: ‘If you want to stay, we are going to pay you peanuts. Otherwise go.’”

Kruger says the lockdown is costing his Saudi employers immensely. He explains that their employers “are considered our sponsors. They’re like our parents. They are in full responsibility of us. But obviously they can’t do anything because it is the whole world.

‘Illegal alien’

“I’m not earning money any more because I’ve taken the retrenchment. I’ve got my exit visa, so I will soon be an illegal alien. I don’t have my residency any more … which is provided by your employer. So I’m soon going to be without residency, without a passport without an employer, and I’m going to be an illegal alien,” Kruger says.

“You know, my family is worried that I’m gonna get stuck indefinitely or that I’ll get locked up [with] the situation. We don’t know. The uncertainty is the hardest part.”

Spokesperson for the department of international affairs and co-operation, Lunga Ngqengelele, assured the Mail & Guardian that officials are “aware of all South Africans who are stuck across the globe”.

“As we are working to repatriate as many South African as possible, we have experienced that the regions are not the same in their negotiations,” Ngqengelele said. “Some are taking longer. But in others there has been a complete shutdown, where there are no flights going to them.”

According to the department’s recent newsletter on its repatriation efforts, 3 639 South Africans have indicated that they were stranded and require assistance to return home. “The overwhelming majority are stranded as a result of lockdowns announced in many countries and the almost complete cessation of flights.”

The department is now focusing on countries in the Middle East, “because we have not been able to bring back as many people”, Ngqengelele said.

Ngqengelele added: “The issue is that countries have instituted lockdowns [that] include no travel. So we are negotiating with those countries, but obviously not wanting to undermine their lockdowns, which are meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus … It requires a lot of negotiations.”

Meanwhile, Belinda Hammerse is itching to get home to her ailing mother. “Our families are waiting for us,” she says.

Hammerse, who was working as a clinical nurse in Saudi Arabia, says she left her job when she was presented with the opportunity to finally fly home.

“But now I am sitting here again,” she says. “No one has an answer about when this Covid-19 will clear up. So if we can get closer to home, at least we will have peace of mind.”

The M&G is trying to contact the Saudi Arabian embassy in Pretoria for further details. This story will be updated with comment if received.