South Africa will reopen its international borders in October as the country scales down its COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.

This has been announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa. He said the country would scale down to its lowest COVID-19 alert level at 0000L on September 20, followed by the reopening on October 1 of certain land border posts, as well as the country’s three main international airports Johannesburg O.R. Tambo, Durban King Shaka and Cape Town.

This comes as COVID-19 infections decreased to less than 2,000 cases a day, with a national recovery rate of 89%. South Africa to date has recorded 653,000 cases and 15,705 deaths.

Ramaphosa said travel would be allowed for business and leisure but may be restricted from certain countries with high infection rates. A list of countries would be published in due course.

Arrivals would have to present a negative COVID-19 test result not older than 72 hours from the time of departure, or be subject to mandatory quarantine at their own cost. All travellers would be screened on arrival. Those presenting with symptoms would be required to remain in quarantine until a repeat COVID-19 test was conducted. For tracing purposes, entries would also be required to install a COVID-alert mobile app. In preparation for the reopening, South African missions abroad would open for visa applications, and all long-term visas would be reinstated.

The announcement late on September 16 was welcomed by the country’s beleaguered airline sector, which has been lobbying for months for the reopening of international travel.

“We are relieved and happy that our president has responded positively to our plea to open borders. We view this as one of the gradual steps towards resuscitating our fragile economy,” commented Zuks Ramasia, Chief Executive Officer of the Board of Airline Representatives (BARSA), which represents foreign carriers serving the country. “The conditions look tolerable at the face of it, particularly since travellers are allowed to present negative COVID-19 test taken 72 hrs before travel as that will lead to no mandatory quarantine. I believe this is really progressive and will attract visitors to our shores and some jobs stand a chance to be saved. We will reflect further as regulations are issued by the Minister of Transport.”

"While the reopening of the borders is a step forward, raising barriers to entry with quarantines, visas and other hurdles is a concern. The experience in other markets around the world shows they deter travel," responded Chris Zweigenthal, Chief Executive Officer of the Airline Association of Southern Africa (AASA), which represents 22 airlines in sub-Saharan and Indian Ocean Island region.

Airlink (South Africa) (4Z, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo) welcomes this positive development, which will undoubtedly facilitate the gradual recovery of our tourism sector. We hope that our neighbouring countries will follow suit and adopt similar policies that will enable people to move more freely throughout the region without increasing the risk of transmission. South Africa has important business and leisure nexus with most countries within the SADC region, and it would be wonderful to see consistency in the approach to reopening borders across the region,” said Airlink Chief Executive Officer, Rodger Foster.

“It’s very encouraging, and while we presently operate no international routes, it’s reassuring that international inbound tourists will be permitted to return, stimulating the local economy and hopefully filling aircraft on domestic routes too,” responded Kirby Gordon, Executive Manager at FlySafair (FA, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo), which has applied for international route authorities to serve Windhoek Int'l, Mauritius, and Zanzibar.

“It was certainly important that we were patient as a country, however now is the time to shift the focus and energy to economic recovery. The opening of the borders is a critical tool to kickstart South Africa’s economic recovery. It is welcome news for the country and for the tourism and aviation industries,” said Wrenelle Stander, Chief Executive Officer of Comair (South Africa) (MN, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo), currently in voluntary business rescue.

The South African aviation industry currently has Comair and flag carrier South African Airways (SA, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo) in business rescue, regional state-carrier South African Express (XZ, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo) in provisional liquidation, with state-owned Mango Airlines (JE, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo) needing recapitalisation. This may leave Airlink to ply the lion share of regional routes unless the other carriers pull through, and FlySafair receives regional route rights. A new startup by Global Aviation Operations (GE, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo) plans to join the domestic market by year-end.