A Northern Ireland couple have told how their trip of a lifetime turned into a nightmare after they were refused entry into South Africa — and left stranded on the tarmac at Johannesburg airport.
Businessman James Hagan from Ballyclare and his partner Anne Meeks, a retired nurse from England, have had to sleep in a borrowed car at Johannesburg’s Lanseria airport after South Africa introduced emergency visa restrictions on UK passport holders because of the coronavirus crisis.
The couple have spent the last 24 hours in a Volkswagen Caddy van after being left in limbo by the airport authorities, and last night James said he and Anne were expecting to spend another night on the runway.
The trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity to celebrate Anne’s 60th birthday, but has now turned into a bureaucratic nightmare, James said.
Along with pal James Story from England, James and Anne were kept in an interview room for many hours after they flew into South Africa from Zimbabwe on a private charter plane.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph from the airport, James said: “First of all they told us it was because we come from a high-risk country.
“But we said we don’t — we haven’t been in the UK for three weeks.
“It took them 24 hours to accept that — but then they said there was a new regulation that all UK visas for entry to South Africa had been cancelled.
“We are now sitting in a VW Caddy at the airport — the airport handling agent got us it to sleep in, with some bed clothes and stuff.
“We’re out on the tarmac by the planes — it’s roasting hot.
“We’re getting food, but there’s no showers.
“I wouldn’t want to stand downwind of me!
“Last night, they were going to let us sleep in the airport waiting room — but they asked us to sign a form which said we agreed we were illegally in South Africa and that we have come from a high-risk country.”
Mr Hagan said they argued with the official, but they were facing a brick wall.
“We refused to sign the form, and they threw us out.
“We said we’re not moving, and they called the police. Two policemen arrived.
“I was going to make them carry me out, but I decided that I didn’t really want to go to a South African prison.
“It would be worse than the Crumlin Road,” he chuckled.
The couple’s flight back to the UK leaves on Sunday, from Cape Town — but they are not able enter South Africa, and so cannot travel from Johannesburg to Cape Town for their flight home.
Asked what the SA authorities were going to do, Mr Hagan said: “They’re not proposing one solitary bloody thing.”
“We can’t get into the country and we can’t get out of it.
“It’s bureaucratic buck-passing — and we’re the victims,” he said.
Mr Hagan said he had contacted his MP, Sammy Wilson, and the British Embassy to try to break the deadlock that has trapped the couple on the tarmac thousands of miles from home.