British Columbia

For some South Africans in B.C., new travel ban feels like 'your breath has been knocked out of you'

Some South African expats in B.C. say their travel plans have been upended after the Canadian government closed its borders to seven southern African countries in response to a new coronavirus variant.

Canada is closing its borders to 7 southern Africa countries after the discovery of a new coronavirus variant

Johannes Nonyane, president of the South African Cultural Association of B.C., says he's scrapping a planned trip from Vancouver to Johannesburg in December following Canada's travel ban on southern African countries. (Submitted by Johannes Nonyane)

The holidays were meant to be a homecoming for Adele Putter, who immigrated to British Columbia from South Africa 22 years ago and has not returned since. 

Putter and her husband had finally booked flights in late December to attend her brother's wedding in Durban, South Africa, and visit their extended family. 

And they had a surprise in tow: their 19-year-old daughter, who has yet to meet her extended relatives.

But their tickets are now cancelled and the family will be staying in their Surrey, B.C., home for the holidays, after the Canadian government announced Friday that it would limit travel from seven countries in southern Africa in response to a new potentially more transmissible coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa. 

"Everybody is just devastated," Putter said Saturday. "You feel like your breath has been knocked out of you."

People line up to get on the Air France flight to Paris at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa on Friday Nov. 26, 2021. (Jerome Delay/The Associated Press)

Under Canada's new rules, all foreign nationals who have travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini or Mozambique are barred from entering Canada. Canadian citizens and permanent residents are allowed to return home, but must test upon arrival and quarantine for 14 days. 

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Putter said she spent Friday scrambling to see if she could reroute her trip, which was meant to connect through the U.K.

But multiple airlines have nixed their flights to and from the region after other countries, including the U.K. and the U.S., enforced similar border closures. 

The realization their trip is cancelled, she said, has left her feeling helpless and angry, compounded by the fact that her parents are aging. 

"This was going to be a visit to literally say goodbye," she said. "I don't know if we'll ever see them again."

'Based on politics, not science'

Johannes Nonyane, the president of the South African Cultural Association of B.C., had similar plans to travel home. 

He was meant to fly to Johannesburg from Vancouver the second week of December to pay his respects to his brother, who died last April. 

Instead, the 59-year-old Surrey resident plans to cancel his ticket on Monday.

Nonyane said he doesn't take issue with the travel ban itself, but rather that southern African countries were singled out after confirming cases of the omicron variant. Other countries, including Germany and Italy, have since confirmed cases of omicron, but have not faced similar widespread bans. 

"The fact that it was discovered in South Africa doesn't mean it originated there," Nonyane said. "It's based on politics, not science." 

Nonyane added the new variant reflects the world's failure to share vaccines equitably. 

For now, he said he's not taking a chance on travel and will hold off on his trip until at least the spring. 

Similarly, Putter said she was able to cancel her three tickets — which totalled $6,500 — for free and is eyeing flights next year. 

"We will rebook," she said. "We will get there eventually."