Curse of the green and gold

2009-02-14 00:00

Green and gold are synonymous in the minds of rugby and cricket aficionados with the achievements of South Africa’s two most successful international sporting teams: the Springboks and the Proteas.

There is, however, a flip side to worldwide recognition. Slide that similarly green-and-gold South African passport across the counter to an immigration official almost anywhere and the response is suspicion. As with many things, the African National Congress government has managed in just 15 years to fritter away international goodwill to new lows of antipathy.

In the bad old days, the South African passport was decidedly an embarrassment. It would remain pocketed until one pressed up against the passport counter. Then it was furtively slid across, already open, so that as few people as possible could identify one, by the telltale cover, as a citizen of the skunk nation.

Shame is one thing, but at least one did not get banged up in a back room as an illegal immigrant or terror suspect, while tight-lipped immigration officials went off to have one’s travel credentials scrutinised. The South African passport, according to the British Home Office, is “one of the most abused” and, according to the United States security services, is a firm favourite of al-Qaeda and other terror groups.

There is support for these claims. Terror suspects have been arrested in the U.S. using fraudulently issued South African passports and a British court heard evidence last year that some 6 000 Indian nationals may have entered the United Kingdom on fraudulent South African passports.

The attraction to criminals lies in the fact that they don’t need laboriously to forge South African passports. The genuine article is readily procured from corrupt Home Affairs officials for a few thousand rand.

Although the South African government was warned about the problem as far back as 2004, it was predictably dilatory in responding.

As a result, Britain has decided that South Africans will, for the first time, need visas to visit the UK. It is likely that more of the few remaining countries that allow visa-free travel — mainly South America and South Africa’s immediate neighbours — will follow suit.

As well as a laissez faire attitude to corruption, except when it came to allegations against his deputy Jacob Zuma, former president Thabo Mbeki tolerated exceptional levels of ministerial incompetence. Home Affairs minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula is notoriously inept.

Hers is a litany of disaster. Thousands of women found themselves “married” to foreigners in a scam run by Home Affairs officials selling instant citizenship. There is a backlog of close on 100 000 people who have applied for refugee status but have not yet been processed, some whose applications have been outstanding for 10 years.

Last year, in reply to a Democratic Alliance question, Home Affairs admitted that there was a backlog of more than 43 000 passport applications. Given that anyone who applies for a passport generally wants to go somewhere soon, it makes resorting to a fake version an understandable temptation.

It is somewhat bizarre that the department which fails at its task in providing passports for citizens who want to travel abroad, has a blissfully benign attitude to foreigners who want to enter South Africa without passports. Mapisa-Nqakula opposes tighter border controls and disapprovingly says that the border with Zimbabwe was controlled by the apartheid government to “allow little movement between South Africa and the rest of the continent”.

If the minister doesn’t understand that the whole idea of borders is to control the movement of undesirables, it is hardly surprising that she didn’t respond to the alarm signals from the Brits and Americans. Time to issue her exit visa.

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