Tristan-Lee Niemand: A cautionary tale for South African travellers

The East London teenager was arrested for visa violations in China and will be deported home this weekend.

Tristan-Lee Niemand. Picture: Supplied

CAPE TOWN - Nineteen-year-old Tristan-Lee Niemand will soon be home, after a harrowing time in a Chinese detention facility. The East London teenager was arrested for visa violations and will be deported home this weekend.

Niemand’s parents have been advocating for her from their home in East London, for weeks. They had supported her in her desire to spread her wings and teach English in China. Niemand matriculated last year and after months of unemployment, she was excited when she thought she had landed the job of her dreams.

The teen was attracted by a recruitment agency to travel to the country on a study visa while planning to work as an English educator.

Niemand's parents say the language school encouraged her to travel to China, undertaking to organise her work permit on arrival. However, this was never forthcoming. She started working nonetheless, and that meant she was in contravention of the Chinese immigration laws.

After 11 days of teaching at Sesame Street School in Nanjing City, she was arrested and detained.

Attempts to reach the person who signed the contract on behalf of the school have failed, as have attempts to reach out to the school's leadership for comment.

Niemand's mother, Stacey-Lee Niemand says she’s always been a strong-willed, free spirit, but she had never been overseas, and when the opportunity presented itself to work in China, she jumped at it.

"She's a crazy strong girl, she's not afraid of anything. She’s a very outgoing person, she just thought this is perfect. A lot of her friends have gone to Vietnam, she’s the only one who decided to go to China because there’s more money there. She just wanted to go one step forward.”

Instead of taking that step forward, Niemand found herself as one of hundreds of South Africans on the wrong side of immigration laws in foreign countries.

According to DIRCO figures, 800 South Africans are currently in prisons across the world for visa irregularities, drug-related charges and other offences.

However, arrests occur more frequently in the Republic of China compared to anywhere else.

DIRCO spokesperson Ndivhuwho Mabaya says Niemand’s story is all too familiar.

“This happens every day. This happens mainly because a lot of young people who have done teaching or other subjects are finding opportunities there.”

Mabaya told Eyewitness News Niemand is among more than 100 South Africans detained on visa violations in China this year alone; the circumstances surrounding their detention are often virtually identical.

“We want to find a way in which we can cap this because the agents are Chinese, and they work with South Africans to recruit these young people, and we want to stop that. “

Last week, DIRCO issued a statement seeking to clarify the basis on which South Africans are allowed to travel to and work in China.

Amongst other things, the Department says South Africans must have a degree in order to teach in China. It also advises citizens to vet and verify agencies with Chinese authorities before they pay any money to them or accept any offers of employment.

The DIRCO statement also outlined efforts to prevent this from happening in the future, with South African diplomats in China tasked with liaising with schools and local authorities, to ensure fraudulent agencies or those that do not comply with Chinese Law are reprimanded.

Niemand and her family are awaiting their happy ending. After 35 sleepless nights for her parents, the family was finally able to talk to her on the telephone. Her father Richard Bridger said she sounded excited and bubbly as always.

“I’m sure deep down she feels a bit of pain, stress and (is) traumatised but we will deal with that as a family and sort that out.”

The teenager’s ordeal is over and she should be home in time for Christmas, something that pleases her parents to no end.

Stacey-Lee says: "I didn't expect her here at all for Christmas. All I thought was that she's going to be in that cell, so I am happy that we can all be together for Christmas."

Her father added: "I couldn't be happier knowing my daughter's coming home."

As for the homecoming, it’s likely to be quite a party as Niemand’s parents will meet her in Johannesburg and fly home to East London together.

“Everyone is going to the airport. Most of East London will be at the airport,” said Stacey-Lee.