'Unheard and let down': The couples kept apart by Germany's South Africa travel ban
Germany's ban on travel from South Africa hasn't only affected people hoping to start new lives abroad - it's also kept families and couples apart for months on end. We spoke to one of the long-distance couples fighting for the right to see each other again.
When German national Lisa Hagenböcker touched down in South Africa in 2019, she was wasn't expecting much more than a brief business trip.
The artistic director was shooting a production in Cape Town and was only scheduled to stay for three weeks before jetting back to her home town of Hamburg. But when she met location manager Allan Lipp for the first time, the trip took an entirely different turn.
"I'll never forget the moment Allan came to meet my team and I in the lobby of the hotel," she says. "We looked at each other and from the very first moment there was a connection."
Despite their hectic work schedules, the two snatched every minute they could together before Lisa's flight home - and upon her return, immediately made plans to be reunited in March 2020.
"Since I arrived back in Germany on November 19th, 2019, not a day has passed without him," she says. "We arranged to meet on virtual dates, developed our routines together and shared everything - and the longing only grew."
After meeting in Cape Town in 2019, Lisa and Allan became inseparable. Photo: Allan James Lipp
The flight was booked for March 2020, and the pair counted down the days in a series of phone calls and shared pictures from their separate lives - but when 100 days had been whittled down to three, coronavirus struck, and countries around the world went into lockdown one by one.
"That holiday would have been the time when we actually discovered about each other and could see if we are a compatible couple," Allan says. "But we carried on and didn't let that stop us.
"We had planned on watching some concerts at Kirstenbosch Gardens and having picnics, so when those concerts still happened online, we watched them together. We would have Sunday night movie nights and go for runs together - just all the stuff you would do to make it happen."
Over the course of 15 months and through multiple lockdowns, the couple repeatedly postponed their visits and waited for the opportunity to reunite. "I missed him so badly it hurt at times," Lisa says.
Eventually, in March 2021, they saw their chance. "We said, it's open, let's go," Allan explains. Lisa once again took a long-haul flight to South Africa, and the couple spent three weeks together making plans for his trip to Europe. He would visit for Lisa's 40th birthday and they would spend the summer travelling around in a camper-van to avoid too much social contact with others.
"That's when we found out there was no avenue," says Allan. "I couldn't go."
'Frustrated and angry'
Since January this year, Germany's Foreign Office has had South Africa on its 'virus variant area' list - the most severe Covid-19 risk category.
In addition, South Africans have been barred from entering the country for all but 'essential travel', though campaigners against the move have taken issue with the government's definition of 'essential'.
"You are allowed to come to Germany and compete in a sports event because that is essential travel," says Allan. "But long distance relationships, family, work contracts, education - carrying on your studies - is not essential."
The ban on travel from South Africa has been described as the "longest and harshest" of all the travel bans, partially because the German Embassy is refusing to issue the Schengen Visas that would allow visitors to quarantine in a different nation before entry.
The travel ban also overturned the so-called 'sweetheart deal': an agreement through which cross-border couples could spend 90 days out of 180 in Germany in order to see each other again. Now, along with work and education, love is no longer seen as a valid reason to travel.
"It is difficult for me to put into words how frustrated and angry I am about the way the German government deals with binational couples," Lisa says. "I feel unheard and let down. The anger grows when I see that South African athletes are allowed to travel to Germany to take part in sports events.
"Is sport more important than love?"
Joining the #LoveIsNotTourism campaign
After the couple's bombshell discovery, it didn't take them long to discover that there were dozens of other people whose lives were being disrupted by the ban.
Under the umbrella of three campaigns - #LoveIsNotTourism, #WorkIsNotTourism, and #EducationIsNotTourism - more than 100 South Africans have been fighting against what they believe is unjust and discriminatory treatment of the African nation.
The group has launched an online petition that currently has 2,000 signatures.
In an open letter the German and South African governments, members of the group have shared their stories of lost opportunities, heartache and endless separation.
Like Johanna and Lutho, whose two-year long relationship has largely been spent on video calls while they wait for Lutho to get the all-clear to travel.
Or like Chantelle and Thomas, who were engaged to be married in Germany this year, but have instead remained apart for seven months - with an uncertain future for both them and their daughter.
“Our family is now separated," Chantelle wrote. "Thomas had to go back to Germany for work, our daughter was unable to register for school in Germany this year and our wedding date has been postponed more than three times.”
Beyond romantic couples who are facing heartbreaking periods of separation, Allan says there are young children in the group who have been denied visas to visit their parents.
"You know, some kids haven't seen their dads, because the dad is German, and they can't get there because the marriage isn't registered in Germany," he explained. "And the kids are seven, so it's not like it's a new marriage, but the government won't accept it."
One man recently needed to travel home to South Africa from Egypt, where he was awaiting a decision on a German visa, to see his dying Grandma - but the Embassy wouldn't return his passport.
"It took the South African government to put pressure on the German Embassy and for the German government to put pressure on the German Embassy for them to give back the passport, and in that time, she passed away," said Allan.
With question marks over whether South Africa's status as a virus variant country is really justified, the group is hoping that there will soon be better news for the separated couples.
The Beta variant of Covid was first discovered at a genome lab in South Africa, but has since then been overwhelmed by the Delta variant, which is also prevalent in Germany.
"It makes me angry when I hear Jens Spahn talking about the African variant in an interview, which he claims he has successfully kept out of Germany," says Lisa. "He didn't even know the correct name and asked himself in front of the camera whether it was the Beta or Gamma variant. Incomprehensible. The numbers he relied on were just as inaccurate."
On Wednesday, ministers met with the Robert Koch Institute to discuss both Brazil and South Africa, which have both been subject to interminable travel bans over their 'virus variant' status. An announcement on whether the two will be downgraded is expected to be made on Friday.
In the meantime, the ongoing uncertainty continues to take its toll on the mental health of those who are waiting for answers.
Some couples, says Allan, have had to end their relationships.
"I think that it's taxing emotionally, it's taxing mentally, the not-knowing what's going to happen," he explains. "Because it is the basis of life, having relationships, and the longer that they keep these people apart, the more difficult it becomes."
If the travel ban continues, Lisa will need to take more unpaid leave in order to visit Allan in South Africa. Photo: Allan Lipp
Nevertheless, Allan and Lisa are still going strong, and have tentative plans to see each other at Lisa's father's 70th birthday in December. "Will it actually happen? I don't know," he says.
If a clear decision isn't made on Friday, the limbo will continue. Chantelle's daughter could turn 18, meaning she would have to reapply for an adult visa to Germany. Lisa will have to take unpaid leave to see Allan again in South Africa. Johanna and Lutho will continue to spend the formative years of their relationship on long-distance calls. And for numerous others, the continued distance could take its toll.
"That's the problem - the longer that these bans go on, the longer you become different people just by the very nature of not being together," says Allan.