The closure of borders and implementation of lockdown regulations to combat covid-19 in South Africa have had consequences for the wellbeing of foreign nationals, many of whom wrestled with the separation of their families and uncertainty over their migration status.
A suitcase packed for England seven months previously obstructs the walkway as it occupies two thirds of the entrance to the Umeala household.
Its owner, Chioma Umeala (23), has no intention of unpacking her baggage. Her family do not question when she will remove it, despite it causing mild chest congestion, as it packs dust.
What you can still smell when you approach it, is the cologne of her father, who had helped her carry the bag down the stairs.
A father’s final send-off, disrupted by the travel ban
Unlike other students, Umeala’s decision to suspend her academic year abroad was not influenced by the outbreak of covid-19, but induced by her father’s deteriorating health.
Samuel ‘Sonny’ Umeala (61), a Nigerian–born architect who had lived in South Africa for more than 25 years, lost his battle with an illness on Father’s Day, June 21, in his home in Johannesburg during level–three lockdown.
Like many, the spread of covid-19 had scared Baba Umeala. Thus, his avoidance of a hospital to evade contracting the virus proved as deadly, as he did not receive due treatment for the illness he was fighting.
For his last Father’s Day, his four girls and last-born son created collages and cards to honour him. Tragedy apprehended their family in the early hours of Sunday morning, however, as condolence messages poured in for the loss of ￼their father.
The reality the Umealas now faced included the logistical weight of planning a funeral under lockdown, which could accommodate their transnational identity.
A home usually filled with the posture of a father guiding his family, transitioned overnight into a battlefield where two nationalities would butt heads for the legitimacy of funeral practices.
In Nigerian culture, a person is meant to be buried in the land where they originated. As a result, his family in Nigeria expected his body to be sent home, for them to carry out the related customs.
Chioma Umeala explains that a burial in Nigeria can take up to six months to plan, as it is described as “the biggest event of a person’s life”.
Putting pressure on their￼ father’s funeral was the policy of procedures for burial under lockdown, which stated that a mortuary may not keep a body for longer than 10 days from the date of death.
Another hurdle they faced during level–three lockdown was the travel ban, which had only been relaxed for the mild commencement of interprovincial travel for business purposes.
Funeral arrangements were impossible to deploy not only due to the limited travel methods, but also by the inflated price of flights caused by the pandemic’s meltdown of the economy.
This meant Baba Umeala’s Nigerian family were not able to come to South Africa to bury their relative.
The family were burdened not only with the emotional trauma of this significant loss, but also the moral considerations of the possible customary consequences for not carrying out certain traditions accordingly. Umeala said, “With my father, knowing his culture, he knew that Nigeria is where he would have ended up.”
The situation resulted in major conflict and anger between the two sides of the family as the borders seemed to become a physical barrier that solidified their detachment.
“This was the hardest part of burying my father, as we knew we had an obligation to send him back, but as a family who grew up in South Africa, we could only carry out the customs we were familiar with, that would give us the best closure,” said Umeala.
Three months after his death, the ban has now been lifted, which has triggered disagreement and resentment as his Nigerian family seek the same closure afforded his immediate family.
Similar circumstances followed for foreign nationals who saw themselves experiencing family displacement caused by the travel ban.
The separation of families across borders
Alouise Matekenya (51) sits in an empty office, still set with work-from-home regulations. He positions himself at his desk, eyes glued to a calendar indicating the arrival of October, which to him can only represent the seventh month of the lockdown. What occupies his mind is when he will be reunited with his wife and children, who he has not seen since December 2019.
Many foreign nationals like him, with employment in South Africa, faced insecurity of their mobility as movement across borders was restricted. Regulations such as the travel ban were initiated from March 18, in preparation for the lockdown strategy known as the National State of Disaster Management Act.
Separated by only a border, the wife of Alouise, MaMatekenya, remained in Zimbabwe, where she ran their business. The two parents used their phones to regularly negotiate their parenting plan, as she took guard of their twin boys, ￼who attend school in Zimbabwe.
During this period, Matekenya navigated involuntary single parenthood in South Africa as he became the primary caregiver for his three other children, who remained with him.
“It was very difficult to manage the kids on my own. They were used to their mother coming periodically to check on them as well. Making the kids stay in the house was the most difficult thing to do,’’ said Matekenya.
Outside of the emotional and socio-economic deprivation caused by the lockdown, Matekenya expressed how the risk of poor health was a lingering thought during the pandemic.
From this point onwards, Matekenya said, his association with the virus was set to its “worst possible outcome being death”.
Without direct access to his wife for support, a petrified Matekenya described himself as “the most vulnerable member of the family this side”, as he entered self-isolation.
Due to the level of responsibility on his shoulders to care and provide for his family, he had to put on a brave face for his children, while attempting to suppress thoughts of what would happen without his presence, or inability to stand in good health.
To him, his three children in South Africa, all under the age of 12, bore the risk of vulnerability, if left alone in an environment where separation for “health and safety were the government’s first priority.”
Throughout the global lockdown, countries have offered repatriation flights to people who wish to return to their country. To some people, this gesture served as an outlet to reunite families. However, such flights to South Africa were exclusive to citizens and those with residency, thus limiting the ability of those with working or tourist visas to return to the country.
During the scramble of countries closing their borders to manage the spread of the novel virus, many expatriates had to make the decision of remaining in the area they were in or returning home.
In South Africa, decisions for migrants to remain were factored on “considering South Africa as their home, others felt the covid-19 pandemic was global and could be contracted anywhere, while some indicated that they feared they’d be unable to re-enter South Africa,” according to the “Social impact of COVID-19” research conducted by Stats SA on July 27.
Speaking to the Cape Argus newspaper, the dean of social science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Vivian Besem Ojong said, “The primary response [by the government] is to usually focus on its citizens, and when the borders closed governments mainly put focus on their own residents.”
The ramifications of lockdown policies, aimed at guarding the wellbeing of citizens, create a window of vulnerability for foreign nationals as they are not identified as beneficiaries of that protection. Consequently, they must submit to policies that do not safeguard their welfare.
Yet in instances where one returned home, like MaMatekenya, the only option was to sit steadily in Zimbabwe for months, without clarity on when she would be reunited with her family. What was initially estimated as a 21-day lockdown in South Africa has extended past seven months, with no clear end point.
“Like any other person, she felt cut off from the physical family union for a very long time. Naturally, her freedom of movement to see family was prohibited,” said Matekenya.
With the financial instability caused by the pandemic, Matekenya said the earliest arrangement for his wife to visit, with the reopening of borders, has been made for November 2020 – a year after their separation.
Not only did lockdown policy affect movement, but it also had an impact on the renewal of visas and residency applications, which foreign nationals rely on to maintain legitimacy in South Africa.
The limited services offered by home affairs caused uncertainty for foreign nationals
Connor Sim (24), a Scottish citizen working as a private wealth banker in Cape Town, returned to Scotland in February 2020, due to a change of employment in South Africa that required a visa renewal.
In his statement on “Measures to combat the covid-19 epidemic” on March 15, President Ramaphosa announced a travel ban on foreign nationals from high-risk countries, effective from March 18. On that list was the United Kingdom.
As a result, Sim was prevented from returning to South Africa. Such measures by the government did not make exceptions for foreign nationals who had affairs in the country.
When the lockdown came into operation on March 23, the Department of Home Affairs announced it would be offering limited essential services, restricted to the issuing of “temporary IDs, birth and death certificates”.
This caused distress for foreign nationals who remained in the country past the expiry date of their permits or visas, as they risk being labelled as “undesirable people”.
Section 30(1)(h) of the Immigration Act 13 of 2002, as amended by Act 13 of 2011, states the consequences of overstaying in South Africa as deportation and a ban for a period of five years or more.
Permit holders whose documents expired no earlier than February 2020 were granted validity until an amended date, which has been extended to January 31, 2021.
This grace afforded them bears the emotional stigma carried by undocumented foreign nationals as they often face discrimination from citizens and intimidation by the police.
“The Bill of Rights was not suspended by the initiation of the Disaster Management Act, however, there was a lack of consideration on the means of survival for foreign nationals,” said Ekambaram.
With the closure of embassies, foreign nationals had limited avenues to enquire about the terms of their stay or requests for aid from South Africa.
Sim described the preliminary period of lockdown as “walking through the unknown.” As he fought to withhold adjusting to the possibility of relocating back to Scotland. This deliberation was caused by the growing uncertainty of when he would return to South Africa.
Speaking on the lack of resources for foreign nationals to remain informed, Ekambaram said, “there was no effort for the government to share these messages on a community level.”
A clueless Sim, desperate for information on when travel would open, grew tired of typing variations of the same question, on his laptop, one of the few possessions, which he had not left in South Africa.
His rigorous efforts were not met with the same urgency as President Ramaphosa would only give South Africa updates every three to four weeks.
“Around June, July [three months into lockdown], the thoughts started creeping in, I struggled to visualise my future in South Africa and felt like I had little possibility of returning to South Africa,” said Sim.
The upliftment of the international travel ban, in October, under lockdown level one permitted Sim to return to South Africa to resume his employment.
However, the future of many other migrants in the country remains ambiguous as they camp outside an open Home Affairs department waiting for their visas to be processed.
Although the initiation of lockdown level one has facilitated a form of normality with the relaxation of policies, for many foreign nationals a constant negotiation of their agency was the fight they endured for remaining in a foreign country during the lockdown.
FEATURED IMAGE: The Alexandra Home Affairs office remains crowded since its resumption of full services at the beginning of level one lockdown on October 1, as people have been inquiring about the status of their documents. Photo: Zinhle Belle.