The slow pace to move South Africa off the UK’s red list could have been as a result of South Africa’s lax border controls, writes Maynard Manyowa.
At midnight, on 11 October, The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland removed South Africa from its ‘red list’, but only when it had relaxed most of its own rules surrounding travel, and life in the country had returned to normal. Currently only seven countries remain on the red list, most of them being South American Spanish speaking countries where the UK is not a prime destination anyway – the United States is. In truth, South Africa was only removed at the same time as Afghanistan, and when the UK was taking the final steps to abolish the traffic light system altogether.
What was the red list?
Under the three-tier travel traffic light system, passengers arriving in the UK from a green list country or passengers who had spent ten days in a green list country didn’t have to self-quarantine on arrival. All they required was a negative Covid test taken days before arrival.
Passengers from amber list countries were required to take a test before coming to the UK, self-quarantine at home, and book for a test on day two and day eight of their arrival. This was largely seen as inconvenient but tolerable.
However, passengers from the red list were subject to some of the harshest health screening protocols in recent times. They were required to book and pay for an 11-night quarantine in a managed hotel at the cost of £2 285 (R46,000). They were also required to pay for pre-departure Covid tests.
The entire scheme was scandalous, and the experience was torrid. I flew back to the UK on 20 August through South Africa. I landed to an effective prison. I could only leave my hotel for 15 minutes supervised exercise a day – way less than the 30 minutes to an hour that death row inmates receive in the United States.
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But if it was scandalous, it was absurd too. My wife, a South African national, flew out of South Africa on 4 September, first to Dubai and then to London Heathrow. She had to pay £2,285 (R46,000) as well. On top of that, Emirates Airlines required her to test the day before departure at the cost of R800 and then six hours before boarding at the cost of R1400. On arrival, those who had spent ten days in Dubai were allowed to leave and go home, those who departed from South Africa were sent to the hotel, even though these passengers had been in the same flight for nearly nine hours. In fact my wife sat in the middle seat and next to two passengers who were allowed to go home. I found that self-defeating, but that is a story for another day.
Throughout the year, the UK has moved several countries through different tiers. But South Africa, along with Zimbabwe, Malawi, and pretty much all Southern Africa debuted in the red list and remained there – much to the annoyance of South Africa’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Naledi Pandoor.
Why did South Africa remain in the red list?
The UK never offered an official position as to why South Africa remained on the red list. For some time, it stood to reason that South Africa was not in control of infection rates, and the beta variant (also known as 501.V2 or B.1.351 and first identified in SA), was at one point thought to be the most infectious SARS Cov2 variants was out of control. After all, when the UK’s infection numbers were rocketing, South Africa was swift in banning passengers from the UK entirely.
But this explanation seemed to fall flat when India was moved from the red list to the amber list. India’s delta variant is straight from the pits of hell. It is more infectious than any other variant, affects the young as well as the elderly, spreads quickly, and is responsible for repeat infections among people who are already vaccinated. India’s own numbers were horrendous, at one point consistently registering more than a quarter million cases a day.
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The United States led the list of confirmed active cases. India followed closely. At that time, South Africa was not even in the top 10. Its neighbours, Zimbabwe, and Malawi all had under 10,000 cases. They were off the red list. South Africa puzzlingly remained.
But there may have been one other reason that South Africa remained on the red list longer than it should have. A contact at Public Health England, told me that during several cluster meetings held by different Covid-19 response portfolios, security issues had been raised.
What were these security issues?
South Africa’s borders are gleefully ajar. It is a well-known and open secret that people from different countries can bribe their way past border officials without producing a passport, and that many illegal immigrants, especially from neighbouring countries, often pay border officials to have their passports “stamped out”.
What is “stamping out”?
Stamping out is a practice where an immigrant in danger of overstaying their visitor visa will pay a border official to have their passport issued an exit stamp. Accordingly, that person will have left South Africa on paper, even though they remain in the country. In some instances, passports are stamped in, when the immigrant wants to exit the country. Perhaps critical is that people who overstay their visas can often get this fixed by paying officials to backdate entry and exit dates on passports.
South Africa’s law enforcement is aware of this practice and its priority crime police (HAWKS) have arrested border officials several times.
According to my contacts, there were grave concerns raised that South Africa could be used as a gateway country, that, if it was placed on the amber list, people from countries that do not require a visa to enter South Africa could simply show up at the border, and have their passports stamped to indicate that they entered the country 11 days before the day they actually did – meaning they could board a plane to the UK the very same day and before spending ten days in the amber list country.
It is a plausible explanation that will surface again when vaccine passports become acceptable for international travel. As it is, anyone can get their passports backdated for as little as R300. South Africa’s police have already arrested people for issuing bogus vaccine documents. Zimbabwe has arrested several travellers for arriving with fake Covid tests from South Africa. The passengers make it past South Africa’s port health officials without notice.
“It is one of those things that happens in Mzansi”, my wife Boipelo said to me as I penned this article. She is correct. But the whole world is watching, and they are catching up and catching on. So, while I ought to be angry for being left £4,570 (R92,544) out of pocket, I also understand that British authorities, like Zimbabwean authorities, have the right to step in and protect the public where South Africa’s lax border attitudes pose a danger to everyone else.
– Maynard Manyowa is a Journalist and Documentary Film Maker based in Manchester, England. You can follow him on Twitter @iAmKudaMaynard
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