Johannesburg - Predatory traffic officers and police are leading a new crime racket, targeting international tourists by demanding bribes shortly after they arrive in the country through OR Tambo International Airport – or as they depart.
This latest trend has alarmed tourism and crime watchdogs who are warning that similar sophisticated police gangs are operating on major tourist routes across the country, including in the vicinity of the Kruger National Park, along the Garden Route and on the N4 highway to Mozambique.
This week, Corruption Watch told the Saturday Star it had received more than 15 reports of police officials taking bribes from tourists as they arrived or left the country. Other industry experts said they had received similar complaints.
“There seem to be two main trends,” explained Moira Campbell, Corruption Watch’s spokeswoman. “Coming out of the airport, police officers claim that foreigners have contravened the rules of the road, or do not have the required licence.” In areas with high international tourist traffic, such as the Kruger park, officers use the same ploy with tourists.
“They target rental cars,” Campbell said, “knowing that there’s a 99 percent chance foreigners will be in the cars, and they demand payment of the ‘fine’ immediately.”
This latest scam follows a spate of well-publicised robberies in which foreigners were followed home from OR Tambo and robbed.
Barba Gaoganediwe, of the Gauteng Tourism Authority, said that such “unacceptable” scams were “a major issue of tourist safety, and add to the perception that our destination is unsafe… Foreigners are easy targets.”
Corruption Watch identifies the Ekurhuleni Metro Police (EMPD) as the guilty party. The EMPD’s spokesman, Chief Superintendent Wilfred Kgasago, said: “We have a number of hot spots where corrupt EMPD officers solicit bribes from people, and the airport is one of them.
“These corrupt officers say, ‘We’ll arrest you if you don’t pay’. The tourists don’t want to be arrested and part with their money so they can get on with their business. It’s quite scary.”
The Gauteng SAPS failed to respond to the Saturday Star’s enquiries yesterday.
Mark Corcoran, the president of the Southern African Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association, said: “We’ve had some reports of spot fines being applied around the airport and we’re looking to engage with the EMPD.”
Howard Dembovsky, national chairman of the Justice Project South Africa, said, “We’ve heard stories about what goes on at OR Tambo airport with EMPD officers, and sometimes SAPS members soliciting bribes from tourists.”
The corruption reached deep into the country, said Lisa Sheard, executive director of Kruger Lowveld Tourism. “There’s a OR Tambo racket. it’s happening on the Garden Route, on the N4, and in many places in the country.
“The police intimidate the tourists. The asking price is often as high as R5 000, and they have a menu of prices. You can pay in dollars, euros, or meticals.
“We’ve had situations where tourists were pulled out of their cars and threatened. It’s absolutely rife… These tourists tell us they’re never coming back. Often, they just pay. They don’t know that roadside spot fines are illegal. They’re intimidated.”
Sheard is leading an “empowering” roadside initiative, which uses business cards to advise tourists not to pay cash at the side of the road. She is working on a plan with the aim of getting it rolled out through international car pick-ups at OR Tambo and on the N4 toll concession.
Dembovsky added: “The problem is that people don’t generally lay complaints with us or the authorities – and they really should.”
Kgasago urged the public to report these incidents.
“The public can help our airport integrity and standards unit by coming forward, giving us information and identifying the officers so we can catch them red-handed.”
What a fine mess!
On July 24, at about 4.30pm, French tourist Michael Gentle was returning his rental car at OR Tambo Airport for his flight back to France with his children.
“We were stopped by three cops on the spurious charge of jumping a stop sign. The fine was R500. He then asked: ‘So, when do you want to pay?’
“Fortunately, my brother, who lives in South Africa, knew this was code for a bribe. When we asked how much, he replied, ‘whatever you want.’ With the clock ticking, I decided it wasn’t worth arguing, so I handed over R200 in cash.
“The staff of the rental company told us we’d got off lightly – in the previous 20 minutes, six other international tourists had been stung collectively for about R8 000 after being told they would be detained and miss their flight.”