‘Our lives are at a standstill’: South Africans urge Germany to lift travel ban

An activist group comprised of workers, students and cross-border couples are demanding an urgent rethink of Germany's ban on travel from South Africa, which they argue is discriminatory and unjust.

'Our lives are at a standstill': South Africans urge Germany to lift travel ban
Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) is greeted in Johannesburg by the German Ambassador to South Africa on May 28th. While South Africans are forbidden from travelling to Germany, Germans can visit South Africa and return. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

The six-month blockage on South Africans travelling to Germany has been one of the longest and most severe of any of Germany’s Covid-related travel bans. 

Since January 30th 2021, South African residents have been denied entry to Germany for anything other than ‘essential travel’ – a definition that includes competitive sports events and medical treatment, but not family reunification, work or study.

READ ALSO: Brazilian workers and students demand end to German travel ban

South Africa’s German Embassy is also refusing to issue Schengen Visas for the duration of the ban, meaning that even those who have a valid reason to be in the country – such as visiting loved ones, starting a new job, or finishing a University degree – have been unable to even set foot on European soil. 

Delta now dominant in South Africa

At present, the African nation is one of 11 ‘virus variant areas’ on the Robert Koch Institute’s list of Covid risk areas. According to the information on the German Foreign Ministry’s website, this is due to “new, more contagious variants” of Covid-19 that are present in the country, such as the Beta variant, which was first discovered in South Africa. 

However, activists have pointed out, much like in Germany, the Delta variant is by far the most dominant strain of Covid in South Africa, while the Beta variant now makes up a tiny and rapidly declining share of the country’s infections.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Where are Covid cases rising in Germany – and what does it mean?

On Wednesday 21st July, Beta accounted for just 3.7 percent of Covid cases in the country, while the Delta variant accounted for 77 percent. 

On the same day in France, almost one in 10 Covid cases were Beta infections. France, however, is currently listed as a ‘basic risk area’ by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), meaning travel between people can travel between the two countries with minimal disruptions. 

The Beta variant, which was first discovered in South Africa, now accounts for nine percent of Covid cases in France, and only 3.7 percent of cases in South Africa. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP Pool | Daniel Cole

“The Robert Koch Institute published on July 5th that Portugal, Russia, the UK and India have been downgraded from ‘virus variant’ countries to ‘high incidence’, thereby easing the travel restrictions,” activist Kelly Dido told The Local. “Nothing changed for South Africa – although we are Delta dominant too.”

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Germany’s new travel rules for the UK, Portugal and India

“There is no real reason for SA to be singled out (based on the Beta variant) because, like most countries in the world, we are now seeing the dominance of the Delta Variant,” Dr. Richard Lessells from South Africa’s Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform confirmed.

‘No longer justified’

In their open letter addressed to numerous German officials, the frustrated campaigners urged the German government to be transparent about their criteria for deciding on the categorisation of ‘risk areas’.

“There is no public framework that allows us to understand the basis of these decisions, the criteria, and how each country ranks,” said Dido. “The commission responsible for these decisions should not only publish changes but the respective objectively quantifiable criteria.”

In their independent research, the group – which operates under the names LoveIsNotTourism, EducationIsNotTourism and WorkIsNotTourism – say they have found several “discrepancies” between how countries have been treated by German health officials, including differences in how countries are classified and whether visas are allowed to be issued. 

“This has led us to believe that the travel ban on South Africans is no longer justified,” added Dido.

Though the ban on South Africa has been the “longest and harshest” and led to lost opportunities abroad and long periods of separation from loved ones, the group says their complaints have fallen on deaf ears.

“We are fighting for our fundamental right to see our families and partners, our right to education and employment,” they wrote in their open letter. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, our voices have not been heard enough by all Member States’ governments. Over a year after the pandemic’s beginning, we are still fighting the fight and need your help.”

‘Our lives are at a standstill’ 

With the continued uncertainty of the travel ban, the 100-strong group of South Africans say their lives have been put on hold. 

“It’s been three months since I earned a job offer to work in Germany – a dream come true, but instead, the travel ban keeps me from
pursuing my dreams,” said Dido.

“My visa application is approved, yet I’m not allowed to begin this new chapter of my life. Every day I check the news, patiently waiting to hear when I can board a flight to continue my career. I only wish to grow professionally and contribute economically to the country.”

With the expectation of moving abroad, Dido says she wrapped up her life in South Africa – only to find that she was unable to start her new one in Germany. 

“I’ve given up my job, my apartment, my livelihood for this move,” said Dido. “I now have none left – only a depleting savings account. I go vagabonding about the world, moving from home to home, hesitant to settle down as anything can change at any moment. But nothing has changed. It’s been months now.”

Now, the group is demanding that the German government downgrade South Africa from a virus variant area, implement a more transparent decision-making framework, issue the visas that have been approved by the German Embassy for work, study, and visiting loved ones, and “provide equal treatment” to countries globally. 

“Our lives are at a standstill, a discouraging limbo,” they wrote.

“Sadly, this has put a strain on our lives, giving rise to various severe mental health issues.

“We plead to the RKI and Ministries responsible to re-evaluate the South African status and make the reasonable adjustments to include exceptions for employment, studies, marriages and those in binational relationships. We plead to the German Embassy for support to get our visa applications processed. We plead to our Foreign Minister, Dr. Naledi Pandor, to support and table our concerns.”

The Local has contacted the German Ministry of Health and the Foreign Office for comment, but has not yet received a response. 

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Who benefits from Germany’s €9 public transport ticket offer?

With Germany set to roll out the €9 monthly transport ticket soon, we looked at how it could benefit you (or not) - whether you're a car owner, tourist or a day tripper.

Who benefits from Germany's €9 public transport ticket offer?

For just €9 a month, passengers will be able to travel by bus, train and tram on local and regional transport throughout Germany over summer.

The ticket, which is in place for three months from June, is an unprecedented attempt to relieve German residents financially amid spiralling inflation, and to convince car owners to switch to more climate-friendly choices.

This Thursday, the Bundestag (German federal parliament) will make a final decision on the financing aspect to it, and on Friday it will go to the Bundesrat, which represents the 16 states.

READ ALSO: German states threaten to block €9 ticket

Supporters see a great opportunity for more climate-friendly transport, while critics fear a flash in the pan and warn that overcrowded buses and trains are more likely to scare off potential new users. Of course, people with less disposable income will be helped most by this offer. But which other groups will actually benefit from the €9 ticket?

Long-term public transport customers (ÖPNV-Stammkunden)

If you have a subscription – known as an Abo in Germany – for local transport with a monthly or annual ticket, the ticket is a huge boost. That’s because you will only be charged €9 for the months of June, July and August or you’ll receive a refund or credit note. Many transport associations even hope to gain permanent subscription customers with the the lure of three low-cost months.

READ ALSO: How to get a hold of the €9 ticket in Berlin

Car commuters (Auto-Pendler)

In a survey by Germany’s KfW, three quarters of households that use a car said they would consider switching regularly to buses and trains. So those who are well served by public transport, and who have suitable bus and rail connections to work, may well decide to make the switch because of the cheap offer. This will especially benefit people in large and medium-sized towns. 

If this is you, you’ll definitely save cash by leaving your car at home and taking public transport. The €9 monthly ticket costs less than 50 cents per working day. You won’t get back and forth by car to your destination that cheaply, even if the cut on fuel tax comes as planned.

READ ALSO: How many people will use the €9 ticket?

People driving to and from Cologne.

People driving to and from Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Henning Kaiser

Day trippers (Ausflügler)

For many day trips and weekends away, and even for some longer holidays in Germany, it can be worth buying a car. But the €9 ticket does hold the promise of offering excursions throughout the country, as long as you use regional trains since long-distance trains – like the high speed ICE – are not included. 

The Local has even gathered some of the best trips possible with the ticket, and tourism is expected to see a big boost. However, at the start and end of long weekends, such as the upcoming Whitsun (June 5th and 6th) and Corpus Christi (June 16th) in some states, the passenger association Pro Bahn expects chaos on trains heading for the coast and mountains. So perhaps choose your times to travel wisely. 

READ ALSO: How to explore Germany by train with the €9 ticket

Residents in villages and small towns (Dorfbewohner)

As some Local readers have pointed out, the low-cost ticket for public transport is not so much use if buses – or even trains – rarely stop at the place you live. This is the case in many villages across Germany. According to calculations by the railway subsidiary Loki, many rural stops don’t even have an hourly service. 

Drivers can save on fuel and parking fees with a €9 ticket, but you need the transport connections to be able to benefit from it. Otherwise you’ll have to shell out more on taxis on top of the public transport cost. 

Cyclists (Radfahrer)

First thing first, the €9 ticket does not include a bike ticket, so you’ll have to buy one if you want to board a train with your bicycle. However, even if you buy a ticket for your bike to carry alongside your €9 ticket, the quality of your trip will very much depend on the day and time of travel, as well as the route you’re going on.

It often gets cramped on trains for passengers with bicycles, plus the number of bike parking spaces is limited. If it gets too crowded, train staff can decide not to let any more people with bikes on – even if you already have a ticket.

Trains are expected to be very busy during summer because of the low-cost ticket offer. Some operators are asking people not to take bikes on board. Berlin and Brandenburg operator VBB, for instance, urged all passengers to refrain from taking bikes with them during the campaign period and recommends travelling outside of rush hours. 

A cyclist enjoys a break in Ingelheim, Rhineland-Palatinate.

A cyclist enjoys a break in Ingelheim, Rhineland-Palatinate. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Arne Dedert

Tourists (Touristen)

A group that will definitely benefit form this ticket is people visiting Germany. The ticket costs €9 per calendar month (so €27 in total). But a single day ticket in Munich costs €8.20 normally (and even more depending on the zone). In Berlin, a single day ticket costs €8.80. So even if you’re staying in Germany for two days, if you plan to be on public transport, you’ll get a good deal. 

READ ALSO: What tourists to Germany need to know about reduced-price public transport

Families (Familien)

According to Deutsche Bahn, 6-to 14-year-olds need their own €9 ticket or another ticket; as free transport is excluded from the cheaper transport offer.

Children under six do, however, generally travel free of charge. If you have a lot of children and only want to make a one-off trip, you may be better off with a normal ticket; it includes free travel for children up to the age of 14. For this one, it’s best to check on the local public transport provider’s options before you commit to the €9 ticket. 

Long-distance travellers and commuters (Fernreisende und Fernpendler)

As we mentioned above, the €9 ticket is not valid for long-distance travel, whether on ICE, Intercity and Eurocity, or the night trains of different providers, or on Flixtrain or Flixbus.

The DB long-distance ticket also includes the so-called City Ticket in 130 German cities: free travel to the station and on to the destination by public transport. So if you have this ticket, the €9 ticket is probably not needed.