“Unheard and abandoned”: The couples who are separated from Germany’s South Africa travel ban
When the German citizen Lisa Hagenböcker landed in South Africa in 2019, not expecting much more than a short business trip.
The artistic director shot a production in Cape Town and was only supposed to stay three weeks before flying back to her home town Hamburg. But when she first met Location Manager Allan Lipp, the journey took a completely different turn.
“I’ll never forget the moment when Allan met my team and I was in the hotel lobby,” she says. “We looked at each other and from the first moment there was a connection.”
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Despite their hectic work schedule, the two grabbed every minute they could before Lisa’s flight home – and immediately made plans for a reunion in March 2020 after their return.
“Since I arrived back in Germany on November 19, 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 couple counted the days on a series of phone calls and shared pictures from their separated lives – but when 100 days had been reduced to three, the coronavirus struck and countries around the world went into the lock individually.
“This vacation would have been the time when we actually got to know each other and could see if we were a compatible couple,” says Allan. “But we continued and didn’t let that stop us.
“We had planned to see some concerts in Kirstenbosch Gardens and have picnics. When these concerts were still taking place online, we watched them together. We had movie nights on Sunday nights and we went running together – just all the stuff you would do to make it happen. ”
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Over the course of 15 months and through several lockdowns, the couple postponed their visits again and again, waiting for the opportunity to reunite. “I missed him so much that it hurt sometimes,” says Lisa.
In March 2021, they finally saw their chance. “We said it was open, let’s go,” explains Allan. Lisa traveled again on a long-haul flight to South Africa, and for three weeks the couple made plans for their European trip together. He would visit Lisa’s 40th birthday and they would spend the summer traveling around in an RV to avoid too much social interaction with others.
“That’s when we realized that there was no way,” says Allan. “I couldnt go.”
“Frustrated and Angry”
Since January of this year, the Foreign Office has included South Africa on its list of “virus variant areas” – the most severe Covid 19 risk category.
In addition, South Africans were banned from entering the country on all but “essential” travel, despite anti-move activists questioning the government’s definition of “essential”.
“You can come to Germany and take part in a sporting event, because that is an indispensable trip,” says Allan. “But long-distance relationships, family, employment contracts, training – continuing your studies – is not mandatory.”
Lisa: “I find it difficult to put into words how frustrated and angry I am.” Photo: Lisa Hagenböcker
The travel ban from South Africa has been described as the “longest and toughest” of all travel bans, also because the German embassy refuses to issue the Schengen visas that would allow visitors to quarantine before entering another country.
With the travel ban, the so-called “Sweetheart Deal” was overturned: an agreement through which cross-border couples could spend 90 out of 180 days in Germany to see each other again. Today love is no longer considered a valid reason to travel alongside work and education.
ALSO READ: “Our life stands still”: South Africans call on Germany to lift the travel ban
“I find it difficult to put into words how frustrated and angry I am about the way the federal government deals with binational couples,” says Lisa. “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 sporting events.
“Is sport more important than love?”
Participation in the #LoveIsNotTourism campaign
After the couple discovered the bomb, it wasn’t long before they discovered that there were dozens of other people whose lives were affected by the ban.
Under the umbrella of three campaigns – #LoveIsNotTourism, #WorkIsNotTourism and #EducationIsNotTourism – more than 100 South Africans are fighting against what they believe to be unjust and discriminatory treatment of the African nation.
The group has launched an online petition that currently has 2,000 signatures.
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In an open letter, the German and South African governments, members of the group, shared their stories of missed opportunities, grief and endless breakups.
Like Johanna and Lutho, whose two-year relationship was mostly spent video calling while waiting for Lutho to get the all-clear to travel.
Or like Chantelle and Thomas, who got engaged this year in Germany but stayed apart for seven months – with an uncertain future for them and their daughter.
Johanna and Lutho have been in a relationship for two years, but cannot start their life together in Germany. Photo: Johanna Klafack
“Our family is now separated,” wrote Chantelle. “Thomas had to return to Germany for work, our daughter could not register for school in Germany this year and our wedding date was postponed more than three times.”
In addition to romantic couples facing heartbreaking breakups, Allan says there are small children in the group who have been denied visas to visit their parents.
“You know, some children have not seen their fathers because the father is German, and they cannot go there because the marriage is not registered in Germany,” he explained. “And the kids are seven so it’s not like a new marriage, but the government won’t accept it.”
A man recently had to travel home from Egypt, where he was awaiting a decision on a German visa, to see his dying grandmother – but the embassy refused to return his passport.
“It took the South African government to put pressure on the German embassy and the German government to put pressure on the German embassy to return the passport, and that’s when she died,” said Allan.
With question marks as to whether South Africa’s status as a virus variant country is really justified, the company hopes that there will soon be better news for the separated couples.
The beta variant of Covid was first discovered in a genome laboratory in South Africa, but has since been overrun by the delta variant, which is also widespread in Germany.
“It makes me angry when I hear Jens Spahn speak in an interview about the African variant that he successfully kept out of Germany,” says Lisa. “He didn’t even know the real name and asked himself in front of the camera whether it was the beta or the gamma variant. Incomprehensible. The numbers he relied on were just as inaccurate. “
On Wednesday, the ministers met with the Robert Koch Institute to talk about Brazil and South Africa, both of which are subject to endless travel bans because of their “virus variant” status. An announcement as to whether the two will be downgraded should be made on Friday.
ALSO READ: Brazilian workers and students call for an end to the German travel ban
Meanwhile, the ongoing uncertainty continues to take its toll on the mental health of those waiting for answers.
Some couples, Allan says, have had to end their relationships.
“I think it’s emotionally exhausting, it’s mentally exhausting not knowing what’s going to happen,” he explains. “Because relationships are the basis of life, and the longer you keep these people apart, the harder it becomes.”
If the travel ban continues, Lisa will have to take more unpaid leave to visit Allan in South Africa. Photo: Allan Lipp
Even so, Allan and Lisa are still going strong and have tentative plans to see each other in December for Lisa’s father’s 70th birthday. “Is it actually going to happen? I don’t know, ”he says.
If no clear decision is made on Friday, the limbo will continue. Chantelle’s daughter could turn 18, which means that she will have to apply for an adult visa to Germany again. Lisa has 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 many others, the continued distance could take its toll.
“That’s the problem – the longer these bans go on, the longer you become different people just because you’re not together,” says Allan.
“This is difficult.”