Bent officials target tired travellers in Durban

Durban - After spending six weeks in the US conducting research into a leadership programme for Africa, the last thing a top government official expected was to find corruption the moment he touched down back home.

But that's what Raj Govender, a director in the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Arts and Culture, said he found at King Shaka International Airport, where a customs official allegedly nonchalantly requested a bribe.

Raj Govender claims a Sars customs official requested a bribe at King Shaka International Airport. Credit: FACEBOOK

Active on social media, Govender wrote about his ordeal on Facebook, generating a slew of comments and resulting in a possible probe by the Hawks.

Some of the social media users applauded him for highlighting the misuse of power by customs officials, while others indicated they too had been fleeced at the airport.

Govender, also a cultural researcher and social anthropologist, said an investigating officer from Sars had seen his post and messaged him last week.

"The investigator went to the airport and saw the CCTV footage and told me the matter would be dealt with," said Govender, who added that the investigator had taken his statement on Monday and would lodge a complaint with the Hawks.

Govender said corrupt employees had to be exposed.

Relating the incident, he said: "The flight from New York to Dubai was 12 hours and from there to Durban was another eight. By the time I arrived on Thursday afternoon, I was exhausted but looking forward to seeing my family. From immigration, we were swiftly moved to customs where you choose to either declare or not declare.

"I did not declare because I didn't have anything significant to declare. The only things I had were personal items and a few gifts given to me by friends and people from the university."

Govender said that because he was doing research and had a lot of books, he had two pieces of luggage, both of which were sealed.

"I was escorted to the (male) customs official and his name tag, whether done purposefully or not, was not visible.

"He interrogated me in an unprofessional manner about how much money I took out the country, how much I spent on food, on accommodation and on transport. He expected me to know all the financial details of my six-week trip at a time when I was exhausted."

He said the official also insisted on knowing how much money was left over from his research and according to the official's calculations, this amount would be used to determine the cost of the gifts and how much Govender would have to pay in customs.

All of this, said Govender, was done without his luggage being opened.

"He (the official) said he started work at 5am and was tired and needed to go home. He then gave me two options. One, that I must pay R1 200, an amount he derived, or I must give him R700 to avoid going through my bags.

"The man told me my family were waiting outside and he did not think I wanted them to wait for me any longer."

Govender, who indicated that he was a government official, said he decided to test the man by telling him he did not have money on him.

"He suggested I go the ATM outside and he escorted me."

That is when Govender saw his family waiting for him.

"My wife wanted to know why I was taking so long and I explained what was happening. She took R500 out of her bag and I took it. I was going to hand it to the official, who was standing next to me, but he indicated that he wanted me to return to his work station. In the presence of his colleagues, he took the money from me and placed it in his top drawer. He then said I could go and I left."

Govender said his family told him that other customs officials had escorted about five other travellers to ATMs.

He said one elderly woman, returning home from India, had been in tears and believed she was also being solicited for a bribe.

"A customs official escorted her outside, where she asked her family for money, but they had nothing to give her. She then had to ask outsiders."

Govender said he had not complained to Sars staff at the airport because it was late and he chose to lodge a formal complaint the following day.

"The fact that he was doing this in front of his colleagues shows that this is being done often and is a collaboration.

"They are bagging a lot of money every day. People arrive tired and just want to go but they are becoming victims of customs officials. It's very sad. Judging by the comments on social media, it seems as if this is an ongoing thing."

Govender said he was about to report the matter at the police station the following day but the Sars investigator messaged him.

"Sars has handled the matter professionally and are perturbed by what has happened. They indicated that they wanted to set a good example after the investigation."

Govender said travellers were allowed to buy goods to the value of R5 000 without paying duties. Anything above that was subjected to a 20% customs duty.

Sars had not commented by time of publication.

Some of the comments on Govender's Facebook page:

Nazeema Raju: I had a similar experience at JHB coming from Dubai. Custom officials called us one side, ransacked our bags and saw clothes and shoes with tags on which were for my kids.

Heard the same story about not exceeding R5 000 and then the bribe followed.

I refused to pay the bribe and of course the officials threatened to open all the bags.

I gave them the go-ahead. I guess they were too lazy to open the other bags since they were sealed. I reminded them that they needed to pack my bags as they found them afterwards.

They just got fed up and let me go. They realised I wasn't going to budge. Anyway, the point is this bribery and corruption needs to stop.

Don't give in to the bribes.

Saloshni Govindasamy: I had that experience as well. Lucky for me being an avid traveller I always keep my receipts on hand and only pay what I have to.

Reshmi Bodalia: Well done Raj. Was also a victim but didn't give in. Saw how they escort people to the ATM.

Lageshrie Phillips: Hi Raj. The very same thing happened to me earlier this year. And all I had was a Hello Kitty teddy bear and 2 pairs of new shoes but they wanted to take it away from me. Eventually the lady said I could go when she saw that I wasn't going to make any offers.