Wed, 21 Dec 2016
at OR Tambo International Airport,
I just passed through JNB airport (16:10 PM on December 21). I am on a one-night layover from Malawi to the United States, a layover I have a half dozen times per year for work-related travel. As I have completed this exact itinerary many times in the past, I was one of the first off of my flight to arrive in the cue for non-visa countries. Much to my dismay, between when I entered the metal maze to get to the front and when I actually got to the front, a Home Affairs agent had allowed dozens of people from the visa-required line into the non-visa line. So, I was about 30 people back in line than I would have been if I had gotten to the metal maze 30 seconds earlier seconds earlier. Now, I can understand reallocating people across lines, but the problem is that visa-required visitors take a longer time to process, so it is inefficient for everyone and frustrating for customers to reallocate people between these lines. By the time I got to the front of the line, I was admittedly impatient. I did not say anything, however, as I stepped up to the desk. The Home Affairs woman looked at me and said, "Choose another line." And I said, "Why?" And she said, "I did not like how you threw your passport at me." I moved to another line, where I was processed expediently.
Now, as a technical point, it would have been impossible for me to actually throw my passport, as I had to reach around the previous person to even put it on the counter, as he was taking a long time to pack up his belongings.
But that is, of course, not the point. The point is that it is not the role of an immigration agent to decide who gets to enter the country based on manners or demeanor. They process documents, not personalities. Further, my behavior was not at all problematic. I did not say a single word to her or take any action other than putting my passport on the counter. Again, I fully acknowledge I was impatient. But given the notorious lines at security and passport control at the Johannesburg airport, this is, unfortunately, a common sentiment among the customers waiting in line. As a visitor in this country, I have no obligation to arrive smiling and deferential when I greet the Home Affairs agent. For better or for worse, I am entitled entry to the country regardless of my mood, as long as my documents are in order and I present no security risk.
In fact, there is some argument to be made that I, as the visitor and the customer, have less of an obligation to be solicitous and courteous than she does, as a customer service agent representing the South African government and the first point of contact for hundreds of visitors to the country every day. The most unfortunate part of this interaction is that I told two people of the interaction after it happened and before I wrote this email - one person who let me go ahead of him in the other passport line, and one person at the baggage claim. Both said the same thing: “Well, welcome to South Africa.” It is people like this Home Affairs agent - people who prioritize their ego over hospitality, who wish to judge visitors instead of welcome them, and who believe they have power and discretion they do not have - that make people worldwide believe that South Africa is an unfriendly place. This belief, in turn, affects South Africa’s position in the global economy.
I sincerely hope that JNB takes this situation as an opportunity to educate Home Affairs agents on being ambassadors of courtesy and generosity to those visiting the country. South Africa certainly doesn’t need more of a reputation for exclusion and judgement.
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