#LoveIsNotTourism: Heartbreak of binational couple separated during SA lockdown

Love follows its own script at the best of times, but the Covid-19 pandemic has added unexpected, devastating twists. As it is, life and love under any level of lockdown pose many challenges to a relationship.
With the gradual lifting of restrictions in South Africa, the transitioning has been a rollercoaster ride of emotions, especially in a country where some regulations seem perplexing and contradictory. While those infected by the coronavirus and who have lost their lives or are at risk during the pandemic are foremost in our minds, spare a thought, too, for binational families and couples who have been separated by the pandemic. A life put on hold is in many repects tantamount to a life unlived.
Being rendered “homeless” and forced to live a life in limbo has led to the #LoveIsNotTourism global movement and spawned #LoveIsNotTourism SA. Especially now that tourism is picking up again, they decree “love is an essential need” and “a life without love is, in many ways, a life devoid of meaning”. Only the heartless will disagree.
The Danish, Austrian and Norwegian governments, among others, have seen the light. Starting on July 15, it has allowed cross-border couples separated during the pandemic to reunite. People from outside the EU will be able to travel to Norway if they can prove they are in a real romantic relationship with someone who lives in Norway.
According to the Norwegian government, a relationship is defined by two metrics: the couple must have been together for at least nine months and they must have met in person at least once.
Canadian Laura McMahon, 34, and her partner are among the families and lovers around the world who have been patiently waiting to be reconciled with their loved ones in South Africa. For Laura, it has has been an agonising four months, with no definite end in sight when she will be reunited again with the love of her life, South Africa-born and raised Jesse Jeffrey, 32, a general manager and student at a business school.
A healthworker who is busy with her Master’s degree, Laura said: “It just so happened that I had to travel to South Africa in order to find him. After dating for some time, we found ourselves planning a life together in South Africa.
“Unfortunately, whilst on a trip to Canada to obtain a certificate of non-impediment to marry in South Africa, those plans were upended. After a 38-hour journey, I landed to the devastating news of South Africa’s border closure.
“To our dismay, it has been four long and painful months of separation. Instead of building a life together, we find ourselves on endless video calls at odd hours of the day, lamenting our situation, and feeling utterly hopeless.
“After months, some have begun to take matters into their own hands. Inspired by the #LoveIsNotTourism movement, the group #LoveIsNotTourism SA was born. We are a group of all ages, creed, and race, who have come together with one common narrative – heartbreak.
“While we contribute to the South African economy through regular long-stay visits, we are not yet South African citizens. For now, we are lumped into the category of tourists.
“We implore the government to hear our call: Love is not tourism, it is an essential human need. With no pandemic end in sight, we feel it is time for families, married and unmarried couples to be reunited once again.
“We call on the government to stand up for love, for the compassionate and inclusive South Africa they are trying to create. For a future that believes in goodness, equality.”
Laura told IOL on Monday the SA government “has just begun allowing submissions of appeal for married couples, but so far there isn’t a provision for non-married couples partners”.
“I have just now submitted a 37-page document confirming the veracity of our relationship and our cohabitation together. In addition to the lacking provision for non-married couples, the complicating factor is that visas must be submitted along with appeals.
“Most of us no longer have a visa. Many of us have entered visa-free and had a series of long-stay visits. This hasn’t been a problem in the past. We need to be allowed to either apply for visas or enter visa-free. The SA High Commission in Canada is closed so there is no way to apply for visas.”
While saving lives is obviously paramount, love cannot be ignored or neglected; Laura feels the government must include the “love sick” in its plans.
“We do understand that the SA government has been dealing with a lot, and we haven’t felt like ours was a priority compared to some of the other issues. However, after four months and no foreseeable end to the pandemic, we feel they must start looking at creative solutions to these sorts of problems.
“Our lives have been devastated because of this and will continue to be until we are able to be reunited in South Africa. We feel we can, and should, be allowed to travel before the government considers opening up tourism since the activities we wish to do are low risk.
“We want to comply with all the safety rules and are happy to quarantine since we are coming for long stays anyway. We appreciate all the government has done to listen to feedback and modify regulations where possible, and hope our case will be given equal thought and care.
“Our story is just one of many similar tales of heartbreak and frustration on the website #LoveIsNotTourism. As a group, we feel that our essential need to reunite with our loved ones has been neglected. While we don’t believe this oversight is intentional, we do feel it is one which demands the immediate attention of government officials.
“During such a trying time, we all need support. We do not wish to return to South Africa to sightsee; in fact, we don’t believe it is time for sightseeing just yet.
“We simply wish to be reunited with our loved ones to support one another during this global crisis. We have created a petition, which is garnering more and more signatures every day.”
It’s not only love that has bound Laura to South Africa, the country has captured her heart as well. With no wordly possessions in Canada, South Africa has become her home.
“From the time I met my partner, we were family. We shared a love of nature, activity, animals and food. We bonded over a common world view, even though we came from very different backgrounds.
“We became intimately immersed in both the best, and the worst, of our two cultures. Through our unlikely union, we learned and grew as individuals. We marvelled over the series of events which had to unfold, just as they did, in order for us to find one another. We felt very lucky, and we were happy.
“As our relationship blossomed, settling into a life in South Africa was natural: I had the flexibility, he did not. My partner has strong ties to South Africa, through both his work as a general manager and his studies at business school. For us, building a life in South Africa made sense. I grew to love the country, and the people. Over time, my life became more and more entangled with South Africa.
“Beyond the very obvious emotional, spiritual and psychological effects that come with being stuck here, there are a plethora of logistical implications. Today I am effectively homeless. I have no worldly possessions in Canada, save for the small suitcase I came with in March.
“The ambiguity over when I will be able to return to South Africa has created a life of limbo for both my partner and me. I hesitate to re-establish my life here, when the borders could reopen the next day.
“Meanwhile, in South Africa our lease is coming to an end. Does my partner rent a smaller, more affordable place, for one? Or, does he assume I will be home soon, and rent a larger, less affordable place for two? These are the kinds of nagging questions that we are consumed with. Each day I desperately comb through the news, looking for answers, for signs that I might see the man I love again.
“As I mentioned, internet calling has allowed us to see, and talk to one another during this joyless time, but it is no substitute for the support a simple hug can communicate. A relationship based on video calls alone is untenable. We carry on because we know our love is irreplaceable.
“In the wise words of the Dalai Lama, ‘Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive’.”
There are no definite dates yet when international travel can start under level 1 of the lockdown, with the beginning of 2021 being a worst-case scenario, but South Africa’s tourism sector is lobbying for it to be as soon as September.
Hopefully, love and common sense will triumph.

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