When the Korkie kidnapping saga has ended, the South African government needs to review its policy of not issuing travel advisories to its citizens, writes Peter Fabricius.
The moral dilemma which South Africa finds itself in over the kidnapping of Bloemfontein teacher Pierre Korkie in Yemen, is fundamentally insoluble.
The kidnappers holding him, evidently members of Al-Qaeda, have threatened to kill him in just over a fortnight if they don’t get a ransom of US$3 million (about R32.5 million and rising). So, you either don’t pay ransom, and he dies. Or you do pay ransom which al-Qaeda presumably uses to kill other people.
Bloemfontein business people and others have so far managed to raise just a small part of the ransom.
Imtiaz Sooliman, the bold and enterprising head of the Gift of the Givers Foundation who negotiated the release of Pierre’s wife Yolande two weeks ago and is now trying to negotiate Pierre’s release, says he has told the kidnappers they should acknowledge they got the wrong people and should take a big cut in ransom.
He has told them these are not Americans or nationals of some other rich Western state, as they apparently believed when they grabbed them off the street outside a hotel in the southern city of Taiz on May 27.
They are citizens of a relatively poor state and so can’t afford US$3m, he has repeatedly insisted.
And he has told them – and Deputy International Relations Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim confirmed this in a visit to Yemen this week – that the South Africa government does not pay ransoms, as a matter of strict policy.
Sooliman said this week the kidnappers were unconvinced and retorted that governments publicly insist they don’t pay ransom but then often do so in secret.
Probably most of Pierre’s compatriots hope that somehow enough money will be raised to save his life, whatever al-Qaeda does with the money. That’s future and elsewhere, Pierre’s life or death is here and now.
But when this kidnapping saga has ended, the South African government needs to review its policy of not issuing travel advisories to its citizens.
Most Western countries do issue such advisories, warning their people of dangers they might face if they visit certain countries.
The travel advisories are of course not very popular with the governments of the countries involved since, by their nature, they are inevitably warnings not to visit those countries, or to be careful if they do.
So the advisories discourage tourism and no doubt also investment and other commerce.
Because South Africa itself does not like the travel advisories which have in the past been issued by Western governments about itself – and empathises with other countries which have been at the receiving end of them – it has taken a policy decision not to issue its own advisories about other countries.
“We feel if we did so, we would be contradicting ourselves,” an official explained, also expressing a concern that the governments in question might very well retaliate by issuing travel advisories warning their people about high crime rates, etc, in South Africa.
Such travel advisories could seriously damage relations with other states, he said.
But in the light of the Korkie episode we have to ask if it’s not worth paying that price to try to avoid another such hostage trauma and the impossible moral dilemma it presents.
The Korkies surely had the best intentions in moving to Yemen over four years ago. Pierre taught English to Yemenis desperate to communicate with the outside world.
Yolande did good work too, helping out at a hospital for widows and orphans and giving therapeutic horse-riding lessons to the disabled.
No-one would want to discourage such charity. But did anyone warn them that Yemen is a kidnap-prone country?
As Ebrahim himself said at a press conference in Pretoria on Thursday: “Kidnappings are sadly not uncommon in Yemen.
“Currently, eight other foreign hostages are also being held in areas of the country that are not under government control.”
That information now serves, in effect, as a travel advisory which will no doubt be widely-circulated because of the publicity generated by the kidnapping of the Korkies.
But it’s the sort of warning which the Department of International Relations and Co-operation should be providing as a routine service to its citizens.
* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.