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The South African COVID-19 quarantine saga

Jul 25, 2020

Ever since AfriForum had come into being, close ties have always been maintained with South Africans abroad. AfriForum’s Worldwide initiative was specifically created for this purpose. When lockdowns due to COVID-19 were announced across the globe, one of the tragic consequences was that national borders closed with little warning and consequently many South Africans became stranded abroad.

Their struggle to be repatriated is worthy of an article in itself. Unfortunately, their adventures did not stop the moment when they crossed the border and set foot on their own soil once more. In fact, often it was only the beginning, as the South African authorities had decided that everyone arriving from abroad should remain in quarantine in a state facility for fourteen days.

Initially, not all authorities were equally well prepared. Before long, complaints were heard about the facilities, as well as residents’ comfort, safety, and mental welfare. Reports of this started receiving increasing levels of media attention.

Few countries in the world opted for state quarantine. Most prescribed self-isolation for a number of days (usually fourteen) only. However, South Africa steadfastly adhered to the requirement of quarantine in a state facility, which on the one hand provoked cynical comments from some that it was because South Africans are notorious for not abiding by rules, while others wondered aloud who were now reaping the benefits of state contracts for the use of facilities.

The designated facilities were quite diverse, ranging from luxury hotels in cities, to campsites, a renovated hospital, as well as accommodation of Transnet, Eskom and Telkom.

Individuals’ responses to quarantine were equally diverse. Some were honest about the fact that they could not self-isolate and therefore had to stay in such a facility. Others were even excited about the opportunity to stay in a hotel that they would not normally be able to afford. For people with underlying conditions such as depression, or who had returned to assist terminally ill loved ones, the time in solitary confinement in these facilities was extremely traumatic. Others simply questioned whether this was the best approach, and lamented the resulting costs for South African taxpayers.

AfriForum’s involvement began with people who had accepted the quarantine requirements during Level 5, but were then unexpectedly released and had to arrange transport in a hurry to get home. It soon became evident that communication between the national authorities, the managements of the various facilities and the residents generally left much to be desired. There was little uniformity in the way people were being treated. For example, travellers who had arrived on the same flight, but were accommodated in two different hotels, were kept in quarantine for a different number of days.

As measures were adjusted, things became even more confusing. At one stage, for instance, permission was granted to minors returning from neighbouring countries to attend school in South Africa not to be quarantined, but parents and toddlers accompanying them here, were required to remain for fourteen days, even when wanting to return to the neighbouring country immediately. This unpredictability only served to increase people’s resistance to compulsory quarantine even further.

One of the most notorious cases involved the group that was housed in a holiday resort, Zithabeseni. Some of the members of the group objected to the unhygienic conditions under which they were being accommodated. Photographs of the dilapidated and dirty accommodation spread like wildfire on social media. AfriForum brought about their release with legal action.

One might have hoped that the media attention this sparked, would have served as a warning to other facilities to adhere to the applicable health requirements, but sadly more complaints surfaced. AfriForum and other stakeholders had to step in to get help for people with serious health problems, dietary requirements that were not provided for and even for alternative accommodation where facilities were just completely unsafe.

Managing information in this regard also presented challenges. After the Zithabeseni case, some people waiting for repatriation abroad suddenly did not want to return any longer, because they thought they were going to be detained in “concentration camps”. On the other hand, people who accepted or even enjoyed their quarantine period summarily condemned anyone who did not agree with their experience, without taking the divergent conditions into account.

AfriForum maintained the view that people who can self-isolate without endangering themselves or the public, should have that option. Legal action was taken in this regard, but the case took time to be heard in court. The fact that people with serious complaints had meanwhile completed their quarantine periods and had left for home, and that rules were changing all the time, neither expedited things, nor made it any easier.

Things got even worse when regulations were published in the Government Gazette of 25 May 2020, which made a minimum stay of fourteen days in a state facility compulsory and raised the possibility that people in quarantine might even have to pay for it. People who had already been informed by facilities that they could go home as soon as they had tested negative, suddenly had to hear that they would be obliged to stay on for yet another week.

Adjustments had to be made to AfriForum’s court application for the umpteenth time. Some amendments were rejected by the judge, and the case was adjourned once more. Rumours were heard about new regulations being drafted and AfriForum decided to withdraw the original case, in order to wait for the new regulations, before deciding on further action.

On 17 July 2020, a Government Gazette appeared with regulations that provide for the option of self-isolation at last. It has taken a few days for the application process, contact address and forms to become available (see and currently people who are in quarantine, still do not know whether they will have to stay the full fourteen days, or for ten days only, or will possibly be allowed to go home sooner.

Again, there are divergent reactions. In one of the facilities, a large group of people sent evidence of serious problems to AfriForum and requested urgent intervention. After a lawyer’s letter had been sent to the relevant authorities, the “inmates” reported that the problems were being sorted out. Other groups who had been housed in the same facility, however testified that their experience had only been positive.

Several complaints re comfort also crop up all over the country, for example about staying in cramped rooms without access to fresh air or any opportunity to stretch legs, unsavoury meals, insufficient portions, electrical appliances that are out of order, limited or no data and poor internet access. For people who have to study or work online while waiting to be released, the latter constitutes a crisis, for the bored person currently on leave, the situation might be less serious, but equally frustrating.

In conclusion, one may say that no solution exists that will satisfy all who repatriate. People who have been away from home for a long time and have to return because employment contracts have ended, studies have concluded, residence permits have expired, holidays have come to an end, or who have to come and assist family members in South Africa with some serious situation, are already experiencing the tension of complicated travel arrangements, significantly higher transport costs, strict border control and long waiting times. Once they arrive in the country, they should be treated with dignity and have options to isolate themselves in such a manner that their own physical and mental health, but also that of all who come into contact with them, should be protected as far as possible.

The new regulations already are a step in the right direction, but need to be further refined. AfriForum remains committed to assisting all repatriated people to get through this period quickly and safely.

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