Trials and Tribulations of a frequent Traveller

ONLY IN SOUTH AFRICA OR ELSEWHERE TOO?

(Posted 27th September 2013)

At the end of the 2013 World Tourism Day, and hot on the heels of my piece about Tanzania’s FastJet being refused to start operations over the obscure lack of some ‘documentation’ by the South African Department of Transport, emerged another story of the trials and tribulations of a fellow traveller, none other than renowned Karl Amman. Karl, a near lifetime resident of Kenya, a wildlife photographer par excellence, a conservationist and a tourism investor obviously got the wrong end of a stick, which officials apparently can produce at will to ‘hit’, proverbially speaking (hopefully) travellers whose documents, or appearance they do not like.

His harrowing tale of being caught in the sharp teeth of officialdom gone bonkers, not just wild, at the hands of South Africa’s finest at OR Tambo International Airport is worth featuring. And I do it at the risk of those very officials per chance reading my story and blacklisting my own name. So should I next time on arrival in Johannesburg be told to turn on my heels, after cooling them in lock up for a few hours, I would not be surprised at all. I, like Karl, would very likely make a nuisance of myself, wish I could grow 10 more arms to wave a dozen ‘birds’ at them at once before on return home let my pen do them justice, as Karl Amman did.

And in closing, after staging a successful FIFA World Cup in 2010 for which I applauded them as surely Karl did too – and by the way how many such cases went unreported back then – they are now aspiring to eventually host the Olympics? Really? NOT without a major retooling of those brains at OR Tambo first would be my reaction. Bad behaviour is just that, bad behaviour and such rotten apples must be removed or else risk having South Africa’s reputation dented and scarred. And for others with similar experience – let’s hear about them, right here!

Organized Anarchy at Oliver Tambo International Airport Johannesburg

My wife and I enjoy our visits to Cape Town and in the past few years have visited on average twice a year. We live on the slopes of Mt. Kenya in a rural setting and enjoy the urban aspects of the Cape’s waterfront

The invitation to present our Seychelles villa (Residence on the Rocks) at the ILTM at the Mount Nelson hotel provided an additional incentive to once again visit.

We were flying on April the 9th on South African Airways via Johannesburg. Arriving at OT Airport I was told by immigration that I had a problem because I did not have two empty pages in my passport. I was told I would be taken to a senior immigration officer upstairs who would decide if I could enter or not.

While waiting for the appointment I called my wife and told her to proceed to Cape Town on BA.

The immigration official looked at the passport and decided that whatever gaps were left were not good enough to place any entry and exit stamp. I did show my receipt for having ordered a new passport from the Swiss Embassy in Kenya which had not arrived yet and (attached) the two pages in the front of my passport showing that in the past the SA immigration authorities had no problem stamping on a page which had an already existing exit stamp from Kenya and then SA exit and entry stamps.

It cut no ice. I was told that I would have to return to Kenya on the next flight. I was not shown the corresponding immigration rules and I was not ‘read any rights’ or given any option to appeal to any third party.

I asked to call my embassy requesting the corresponding list of consular representatives in Pretoria. None was available. I had an international roaming modem and managed to get internet access and look up the number to call the Swiss consular official who talked to the immigration official. It made no difference, he kept typing away on a key board not showing much interest in what was being said by the consular official. I suggested that I could peel off one of the stuck in visas from a West African country and the result would be an empty page. I was told that this would be a major offense and my passport would become invalid with immediate effect. I then called a high level South African government enforcement contact that I was to due to meet on my return from Capetown to provide information on rhino horn trafficking which we had uncovered during an investigative film shoot in Vietnam. The immigration official talked to my contact and informed him to go via the ministry of home affairs (on a Saturday evening). I asked for several times about my checked in bag and I wanted to ensure that it was claimed or a record of my status was established in connection to it. I was told that SAA would deal with this issue

My passport was sealed in an envelope and I was told somebody would come and ‘sort me out’. My assumption was that I would be taken to the airport transit area to book my return flight – on the next SAA flight back to Nairobi (In the first instance SAA should have checked my passport in Nairobi and informed me of the missing two empty pages and as such, under IATA rules had the responsibility to get me back to Kenya).

The uniformed lady who came to pick up the envelope containing my passport and myself took me a level higher to what turned out to be a detention center.

The main access door locked behind me and could only be opened by a special code to be keyed in. I was taken to an inner office and asked to hand over all my belongings including my briefcase with my computer and a wide range of documents. Everything was taken out and thoroughly searched. Then came a very intense and unprofessional frisk search. Next my phone was torn out of my hand while I was on another phone call with the Swiss consular official in Pretoria updating him on developments. I was told my 5 min for phone calls were up. A pen was removed from my shirt pocket. The bag was locked up in a luggage room and the valuables sealed in a box. I was asked to sign the list of content which I refused.

A notice in the reception pointed out that the facility was run by a private contractor: ARM: Analytical Risk Management Aviation Security. The notice also stated:
"This is a restricted area. Any person entering these premises does so at his own risk. By entering these premises you hereby confirm and agree to comply with all the ARM rules as amended from time to time."

I pointed out that I did not want to be here that I had not agreed to be here, that I had not been read ‘any kind of rights’. At no point was I shown or explained the rules or regulations “I had to comply with”. I was again refused the phone to call my embassy, a lawyer or anybody else and I wanted to know what I was charged with or under which legislation I was being held. I was told that I was not to ask questions but to answer them.

I was then asked to enter a cell which had a metal grill outer door and a wooden one inside with a small window at eye level. I refused again for the above reasons and asked to make a police statement on what I now considered human rights violations.

A police contingent of four officers arrived. I explained the story and some long discussions took place in a local language with the ARM staff. The police officers made it clear they would not assist in throwing me physically into a cell and they did not consider two missing empty pages as a basis for such action. However they refused to let me file an official police report.

I then slept on the floor of the reception area, after being told I was not allowed to sleep on the seat/bench along the wall of the reception area (all this recorded by a CCTV camera right overhead with me regularly making statements of what was happening directly into this camera).

I asked for medication out of my checked bag. I was told it could not be found and that there was a flight at 10.10 am on Sunday on SAA on which I would be deported and that was when I would see my bag again.

There was a shift change the next morning and clearly the new arrivals were briefed and told to ensure that I would enter a cell.

This I had to do when I had to go to a toilet with the only such facilities being in an empty cell, the door was locked behind me. However there was then a phone call from the Swiss consul to ask about the status of the affair and I was allowed to go to the outer office to answer and after that I again refused to go into the cell.

The SAA flight departure time came and went and nobody came to pick me up and the answer from the attendants was there would be another flight in the evening.

I now asked to buy a ticket on Kenya Airways flying two hours later or a Middle Eastern Airline pointing out that I had just returned from Doha with entry and exit stamps and no problem concerning empty pages. I was told my dossier was with SAA and that was the only airline I was allowed to use.

By this time I had met a range of new detainees from Senegal, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria etc… Some in very similar situations as me having committed some kind of administrative offense they did not understand and were not explained, while others indeed were travelling on fake passports. Me talking to them was classified as ‘politicking’ and I was told to sit at the other end of the room and refrain from any further conversation with any party.

In the case of a very sophisticated Zimbabwean Gentleman who had arrived on SAA Airlink from Bulawayo I managed to assist. He had left his passport in the seat pocket of the plane and realized it when arriving at immigration. He was not allowed to go back and search for it and get it. He was locked up and everything taken from him. His wife and family were arriving from London and he was meant to meet them at arrivals but was not even allowed to make a phone call to inform them of his predicament.

He was informed that he had to go back to Bulawayo and get a new passport but to do so he had to buy a new ticket. He had a credit card but not enough cash and was told he would stay until he found the cash. I gave him U$ 300 and the SAA reps changed it for him and got him a new ticket.

Later in the afternoon of Sunday the day crew were getting ready for a shift change and clearly felt committed to have me in a cell for the incoming crew. The two guys on duty started dragging me by my legs and arms and tried to get me into the cell block behind a metal grill door. I managed to get my feet against the door frames and they gave up after five minutes of dragging, pushing and shoving (all underneath the CCTV camera).

Half an hour later they came again. This time they were more determined and aggressive and I got punched in the back of the head. The struggle lasted longer this time and I ran out of breath and started worrying about chest pains I was now experiencing. They realized I was struggling to breathe and that a more serious health issue was developing. They left me laying in the door way to the cell corridor and I had pulled the seat/bench from the reception area also into the doorway so the metal grill door could not be closed.

Again I lay there until the SAA staff came around 8 pm to pick me up. I was given back my belongings, my briefcase and my passport was handed to them in the envelope and the SAA official took me straight to the plane, walking me to my seat. He told me my checked bag with my medication; tooth brush etc. was on the flight and the baggage tag in the envelope with the passport.

When I landed in Kenya the passport was handed to the ground handling staff who passed it on to me after leaving the aircraft. There was no baggage tag and of course the bag did not show up on the belt.

The next morning I went to the Swiss Embassy to get an emergency passport. I got it in less than two hours (the same service had also been offered by the Swiss Council in Pretoria to the immigration official at OT airport, who refused it on the grounds that I was not to leave the immigration area and for a passport to be valid it needed biometric data which could only be taken at the embassy using specific equipment).

I flew back to JNB and Cape Town where I found my bag and attended the second day of the ILTM. I also informed the SAA sales staff in attendance about the wide range of shortcomings of SAA in the context of this saga. I told them that I would also inform all the travel agents and tour operators that I had not been able to meet on Monday and who had left their business cards on the table set up for these meetings, of what had transpired and send a copy of this report.

Overall, the message I received is that none of the staff members at immigration, none of the SAA representatives attending to me (or more accurately, not attending) and certainly none of the ARM staff ever tried to find a solution, nor showed any indication that they had ever received any kind of training in guest/passenger/visitor relations. What under normal legal circumstances would have amounted to a minor civil matter was classified and put in the same category as a criminal act. Except for the police officers who refused to throw me in a cell, there seemed nobody willing to look at that aspect or consider it as mitigating circumstance.

While I was not dragged behind a car (a case which shocked the SA public a few weeks earlier) their attitude was nevertheless to create as much inconvenience, humiliation and discomfort as possible. Several of the ‘enforcers’ I dealt with seemed to greatly enjoy this aspect of their power.

Myself and my fellow prisoners were all exposed to this attitude from the moment the first immigration official pinpointed a problem at the first passport check. (four Nigerians inmates concluded: “They do not want us here and will find something, so let’s go home.” In their case it had something to do with their vaccination certificates and not their visas or passports).

The physical interaction of trying to throw me into a cell I definitely classified as assault, and upon my return to Johannesburg filed the police report I had tried to file the day of my arrival.

I also reported the incident to the media and the Star Newspaper picked up the story. I had briefed them in our conversations that they would most probably encounter denial and fabrications concerning what had happened. In the printed story the allegation was that upon being checked into the ARM facility I had threatened the female attendant and pulled her on her shirt – an absolute lie. The media were not given the right to view the footage. When I checked with the police, after filing the report three days earlier, I was told that they had not been able to see the footage but were planning to do so.

I specifically requested again for the CCTV footage to be checked concerning the above allegations and my claims of having been assaulted.

My overall conclusion is that the South African problem with crime, xenophobia, and law enforcement goes a long way beyond ‘the big issue items’ one reads daily in the newspapers and it can surprise and catch up with any tourist or casual visitor on short or no notice. The procedures in place of then dealing with these issues seem to be far removed from international norms. (it was a first for me having visited over 120 countries).

Travel Agents and tour operators should be aware of these pitfalls and dangers and warn their clients or send them to countries which are more welcoming and more PR oriented.

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