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Entering fortress South Africa

I have had several South African friends and acquaintances complain to me about the difficulty of entering the United States since September 11. A friend of a friend was denied a visa just recently on the ludicrous fear that he would emigrate during his vacation to America. As much as I bemoan this situation and think that the United States should and could do more to make it easier for visitors to enter the country while maintaining secure borders, I frequently have to point out that South Africa is no easy country to enter either.

Last night, after inadvertently leaving my cellphone on silent, I realised I had missed a call. It was from my friend Sarah who was supposed to have been on her way to her uncle’s house in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg after being picked up at O R Tambo International.

This was the message I received at a quarter to midnight:
“Hey Don it’s Sarah, I have some really weird and bad news. They won’t let me into the country because I don’t have a clean visa page in my passport, even though I have a clean page in my passport. And I am in the immigration holding place and I have to spend the night in the airport and then they are extraditing me to Amsterdam tomorrow. I don’t know what to do other than leave against my will. Luckily my cellphone is working so call me when you get this.”

Sarah’s situation is particularly frustrating. Although she is an American citizen, her father is South African and she has family all over the country. Moreover, she has visited South Africa numerous times. This is partly the reason why her passport pages were full; she had also been to visit her South African family living in Belgium on her way to Johannesburg. Undoubtedly, this made little difference to the immigration official who decided to detain her last night based solely on the fact that she did not have a blank page in her passport’s visa section, even though she had blank pages in her amendments and endorsements section.

I started calling ACSA to see if I could reach Sarah in her holding cell because I could not reach her on her cellphone. The man I spoke to at O R Tambo immigration said he had no record of an American by the name of Sarah Rubin being detained for deportation now or at any recent time. He then rudely hung up on me as I pleaded with him to check again. Sarah was deported early this morning.

And Sarah is not alone. This has apparently happened to countless other travellers to South Africa because of this bizarre rule that few other countries in the world apply. The rule requires a full blank passport page, not including the amendments and endorsements pages at the back of a passport, and some South African immigration officials have been known to insist on two full blank pages. Should a passport fill up, most countries will allow spill over onto the amendments and endorsements pages at the back of the passport, but not South Africa. My girlfriend came to visit me in May and had to pay an exorbitant fee just before she left the States to have pages added to her passport because she did not know of this rule and figured that she had enough spare boxes for entry and exit stamps. Robin Lloyd, former Africa correspondent for NBC News, had a similar experience to Sarah while coming to South Africa on a vacation with his family earlier this year. His solution? He requested that he be deported to Swaziland, which does not have this rule, stayed in Mbabane overnight and had the US Embassy there add pages the next day so that he could turn around and fly back to South Africa to rejoin his wife and daughter who had made it through the first time. Indeed, if this happens to a friend of yours advise them to request deportation to any of South Africa’s neighbours, which do not have this requirement, and do the same thing as Robin.

True, except for this bizarre rule, it is relatively easy for Americans and other foreigners to enter South Africa on vacation. If you are staying here more than 90 days, however, it can be a bit tricky. To get my visa for South Africa, I had to jump through a number of hoops. I had to provide an FBI clearance from the United States government and needed a police clearance from every country in which I had lived for 12 months or more to show that I am not a criminal. I had to get a physical and X-rays to show that I am in good health and tuberculosis free. I was fortunate, however, in that I had my “deposit”, which I like to call the pre-paid deportation fee, waived because of the nature of my stay. My friend Frida from Sweden, however, was not so fortunate. She had to pay R8 500 when she moved here to study and be with her boyfriend in Johannesburg. This money is presumably used to pay for her deportation should it become necessary. These requirements are not unusual for many countries. I had no problem fulfilling them and was happy to do so. I only provide them as examples to show that the United States is not the only country with strict entry requirements.

My one question, though, is what impact the blank page rule will have on the World Cup in 2010? Given the fact that South Africa is one of a handful of countries with this blank page rule (not allowing for the amendments and endorsements pages to be used) one can guess that there will be hundreds if not thousands of visitors coming into the country who will not be aware of this rule and who will be deported because of it. Of all the images and news stories South Africa would want to avoid during this time of celebration, particularly given recent xenophobic violence, is the deportation of hundreds of foreign World Cup revellers who do not have one full blank page in their passport. This is something that Home Affairs may want to look into before 2010 kicks off.

Have any of you faced similar difficulties? And this includes travelling to the United States as well as coming to South Africa if you are a foreigner – feel free to vent in the comments section below. Can anyone explain the reasoning behind South Africa’s full blank page rule? If so, please enlighten us.