Trust no one: former al-Qaeda hostage McGowan's warning to South Africans

By Noni Mokati Time of article published Jul 4, 2018

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Pretoria - Former al-Qaeda prisoner Stephen McGowan has warned anyone travelling out of the country to remain vigilant and to trust no one. 

This month marks a year since McGowan was released by his captors after he and several other foreign tourists were abducted in Mali's Timbuktu region by militants in 2011. 

A seemingly content and jovial McGowan alongside his father, Malcolm, joined foreign affairs officials in Pretoria on Tuesday at the launch of the Travel Smart campaign by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco).

The awareness campaign is aimed at educating the public about the consular services that Dirco offers.

"When things go wrong it just doesn't affect the person being taken or who has the problem but it affects everyone, the governments, family and friends and it has an enormous impact on everybody," McGowan said.

He explained that his ordeal began after he embarked on a "trip of a lifetime" by travelling on a motorcycle across the African continent.

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While he was well-equipped to journey across the Continent, matters took a turn for the worst when he arrived in Timbuktu to collect travel documents he needed for the other countries adding: "Things happened incredibly quickly and the next thing I know I was on the back of a land cruiser heading out in the desert in the Sahara."

He continued: "When you get kidnapped you are vulnerable, there are so many unknowns and questions that can't be answered... Where Dirco got involved was a medium where I was able to communicate with my family."

His father said consular services at Dirco had played a pivotal role in his son's return. 

He said although his wife, McGowan's mother, died before his return, she would have been proud of her son.

While McGowan has returned home safely, Dirco is still working hard for the return of many other South Africans stranded in foreign countries including two individuals who were part of the 51 young teachers who were stuck in China.

On Tuesday, foreign affairs Deputy Minister Reginah Mhaule said of those who had initially travelled to the East Asian country, two remained in custody pending further investigations into how the group landed in China without proper working permits.

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It is thought that the two may have been recruiters.

Mhaule used the platform to caution South Africans who intended to travel overseas saying they had to conduct thorough research about the destination of their choice and to adhere to the immigration laws of those countries.

According to Dirco, 824 South Africans are currently serving sentences time in foreign prisons. This number has declined from the over one thousand inmates recorded previously.  

Between this year and 2017, 155 South Africans died abroad while 111 people have since been arrested. 

Acting chief director of consular services geographical desk Chris Chetty said: "We've been getting a lot of cases where South Africans get involved in labour disputes and now want the government to get involved."

He further said many of this country's citizens detained in foreign prisons were serving time for drug-related offences.  

Some of the most popular cases involve drug mules Nolubalaba Nobanda and Thando Pendu who are serving time in Thailand prisons. 

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"Don't be fooled into smuggling drugs in exchange for money, a free holiday or other incentives. In other countries, drug offences carry the death penalty," he said.

Chetty also emphasised that Dirco's consular services do not include intervention in a foreign court and legal proceedings neither does it investigate crimes, deaths or act as a tracing agency for long-lost families. 

It also does not offer services of returning children who have been abducted by a parent or a family member and does not pay for cremations, burials or the repatriation of the remains of South Africans abroad.

It does, however, issue emergency of travel documents in cases of lost South African passports, provides assistance with the contact details of local lawyers, interpreters and also provides appropriate help for those who may have been severely injured are in a hospital or involved in a natural disaster.

Dirco will be embarking on consular roadshows countrywide in a bid to create further awareness and clamp down on further cases of South Africans find themselves in distress.

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