Interview with a South African stranded abroad

Posted by Gabrielle Jacobs on 27 March 2020

Mark McEwan, along with husband Oliver Cusick, were left stranded among about a hundred others in London at Heathrow Airport, Terminal 3 on Thursday 26 March.

The couple missed their initial flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Their flight departed earlier after the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) closed early for lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mark and Oliver eventually got to London and had been at Heathrow from around 6am on Thursday until midnight. If they’d been on their initial flight route, the pair would’ve made it home before South Africa’s lockdown.

‘It seemed that there was no communication between airlines and government, with all flights still showing as active and on time until the last minute,’ McEwan explains. ‘Then suddenly, everything got cancelled.’

Image: Unsplash

Mark felt that President Ramaphosa’s speech was unclear, wherein he stated that Lanseria Airport would be closed but that South Africans arriving in the country would be allowed to disembark and go into quarantine. ‘They closed the airports early, but it wasn’t clear that the borders would be closed to everyone. That was our understanding – I think it was everyone’s understanding.’

When they arrived at Heathrow, he noticed groups of people from different places and situation also left stranded. There were many from cruise ships, sent home by their employers. ‘People just kept on coming and coming, the groups started swelling.’

‘We were lucky enough to get a hotel room just by a stranger helping us,’ he explained. Most hotels had closed for lockdown but theirs was mostly empty, taking in essential workers from the airport and emergency services, offering their party lodgings for one night only.

Despite many South Africans trying to alert the government to the situation and awaiting intervention, Mark says that Thembi Tambo, the South African High Commissioner in London, has been in contact with them.

The couple was added to a WhatsApp group with other South Africans around the world, including Bali, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Zanzibar and some in Doha, Qatar. He speculated that there must be hundreds, if not thousands in the same predicament.

Hayley Reichert is a South African living in the UK, and has been helping stranded South Africans secure lodgings, among the expat community, no doubt.

He also added that Darren Bergman, Shadow Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, has created a web page where South Africans around the world can enter their info (ID numbers, passport numbers, and locations where they’re stuck), which will be compiled for the government.

Mark and Oliver have been working at a country lodge in south Florida, and haven’t been back home or seen their family in years. This year, they were hoping to return to Cape Town and buy a house with their savings. ‘Now it looks like we might have to spend that money to survive…wherever we are.’

Also read:

First positive COVID-19 case recorded in Kruger National Park

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