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South African ELT schools ramping up operations after early border opening

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • As of 1 October, South Africa has reopened its borders to international travellers
  • English language schools have ramped up reopenings in turn
  • The country’s peak body for ELT expects that most members will have resumed face-to-face teaching by early December, and that all schools will once again be open by January 2021

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the first phases of the country’s border closures on 15 March 2020. Travel has been heavily restricted in the months since and the closures were expected to remain in place for some time still, perhaps as late as February 2021. So it came as a welcome surprise to the country’s tourism and education sectors when the President announced on 15 September that the borders would begin to reopen on 1 October.

“Schools have been waiting in limbo for borders to open, while the tourism sector continued to lobby the South African government to re-open borders,” said the peak ELT body Education South Africa (EduSA). “EduSA schools were authorised to re-open on 31 May, but, for most, this was not a financially viable option, as international borders were still closed. While some schools opened their doors to service existing students in the country, most continued to offer online tuition to their remaining students.”

EduSA reports that the President’s 15 September announcement was an important trigger for the reopening of member schools. Those schools that were still closed at that point have begun preparations for the resumption of face-to-face classes. The association expects that most member schools will be operational by the beginning of December, and that all will be open again by the middle of January 2021.

The traffic light system

“The re-opening of borders is the first hurdle in our recovery process,” says EduSA CEO Torrique Borges.

“South Africa needs to use this time to communicate to the world that not only are we open, but that we are a safe destination for travellers. There is a need to control what we can and stimulate the appetite for travel to South Africa as much as possible, during a time where international demand for travel is suppressed.”

Tourism operators and educators in South Africa will now also need to navigate a new classification scheme for travellers that the government has introduced as part of its reopening plan. Under this approach, traveller are classed as low, medium, or high risk.

The low risk categorisation applies to those arriving from countries with a lower infection rate than South Africa, whereas medium risk refers to travellers from countries with infection rates comparable to South Africa. The high risk designation applies only to travellers arriving from countries with infection rates higher than South Africa’s.

Those from low or medium risk countries may enter South Africa, but travellers arriving from high risk countries are, for the most part, still not permitted to visit, unless they have an exemption from the government or are planning a longer stay of three months or more.

On a bright note, the list of high risk countries was just reduced considerably with the last government update on 19 October. With that update, only 22 countries remain on the list, as opposed to 57 previously.

Nevertheless, this approach, which EduSA refer to as a “traffic light system” remains a hurdle for recovery in that the classifications are updated every two weeks. This, points out EduSA, “causes booking uncertainty amongst potential travellers, as countries can be added or removed from the list.” Further, some of South Africa’s key sending markets – including Brazil, Italy, Germany and France – are currently designated as high risk countries.

Pending any further changes to that high risk list, English language schools will be able to build on the following positive elements for the time being.

  • The African continent has been classed as low risk. “Many African students take up an English course in South Africa as a pre-cursor to tertiary education in the country, so this, coupled with their proximity to South Africa, bodes well for the recovery of the African market, as tertiary institutes are permitted to open for the start of the academic year from February–March 2021.
  • Saudi Arabia, another key sending market, is currently classed as low or medium risk.
  • The border opening coincides with the key South African travel seasons of spring and summer.

Updated entry requirements

Along with 18 ports of entry at land borders, three South African airports are now open to international travellers: OR Tambo International (Johannesburg), Cape Town International, and King Shaka International (Durban).

All travellers are asked to download the COVID Alert app before arrival.

In addition, all travellers must comply with the following entry requirements.

  • They must have a certified negative result from a COVID PCR test (polymerase chain reaction) that is not older than 72 hours from the time of departure for South Africa. This test must be conducted by a certified medical practitioner and should have the name and signature of the practitioner who conducted such test.
  • All travellers will also be screened for COVID symptoms on arrival in South Africa.
  • Travellers are not required to undertake mandatory quarantine. However, they will need to provide proof of accommodation should they need to self-quarantine after arrival.
  • Any travellers displaying symptoms or that have been in contact with an infected person will be required to take an additional COVID test at their own expense. Should the test come back positive, they will also be required to undertake a mandatory 10-day isolation period at a designated hotel quarantine site and at their expense.
  • All travellers must carry mandatory insurance that can cover costs of testing or quarantine if need be.

“Interest has slowly started to build for those intending to study English in South Africa, but mainly from the African markets, as there is more certainty with regards to travel due to their risk rating,” adds EduSA. “There have also been many students from the rest of Africa on standby, waiting for borders to re-open, which augurs well for the industry restart. While the current high-risk list poses its own challenges, the industry is in a much more positive position than what was expected at this time only a few short months ago.”

EduSA schools hosted 10,068 foreign students in 2019 for a roughly 6% increase over the year before (and a near match of the previous enrolment peak in 2014). Students weeks also increased by more than 3% last year to reach a record high of 66,300. The top five sending markets in 2019 were Saudi Arabia (accounting for 22% of total student weeks), Brazil (15%), Congo (9%), Angola (8%), and Yemen (5%).

The increases recorded in 2019 marked a fourth consecutive year of growth for the country’s ELT sector.

For additional background, please see:


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