Durban - Former Phoenix woman Priya “Pree” Govender, who hid cocaine worth R1million inside hollowed-out books on her flight to Australia, faces the prospect of spending the rest of her life in prison.
The 32-year-old, who was fired from her job as an SAA flight attendant after her arrest, pleaded guilty on Thursday.
She will know her fate next month.
Govender has been in an Australian jail since her August arrest at Perth Airport for allegedly attempting to smuggle 6kg of cocaine in her luggage.
She was set to face trial later this year on a charge of importing a commercial quantity of a border-controlled drug, but pleaded guilty when she appeared before the Supreme Court of Western Australia on Thursday.
Govender was arrested by Australian Border Force (ABF) officers at the airport after arriving in Perth on a flight from Johannesburg.
Cocaine worth R1m was found by authorities.
The Australian court manager for media and public liaison, Val Buchanan, confirmed Govender’s guilty plea, telling POST that Govender had been remanded into custody at the Melaleuca Remand and Reintegration Facility, a maximum security prison for women in Western Australia.
Buchanan said Govender could face life imprisonment.
Govender’s family, who live in Phoenix, declined to discuss the development. They have remained silent on the matter since her arrest.
Bella Aron, a friend of Govender’s, told POST this week that Govender had admitted being “reckless and negligent”, but she was not what people were portraying her to be.
“Priya was involved in charity work and she was a people’s person. She is kind and humble and was dedicated to her job. She worked very hard to get to the position she has, as a union leader, so people should not judge her if they don’t know her personally,” said Aron from Durban.
Govender had worked for SAA since January 2010. The spokesperson for the airline, Tlali Tlali, could not be reached for comment. However, in a previous interview, he told POST that since the incident, the random screening of flight crews had been increased.
“Members of our crew are subjected to security screening by relevant authorities prior to departure. The objective of security screening was to detect weapons, explosives and harmful articles, and not narcotics as such.”
He said narcotic checks are conducted randomly and/or when security screeners notice suspicious items in baggage.
This is not the first time an SAA employee has landed in trouble. In March 2013, a 23-year-old flight attendant was arrested at OR Tambo International Airport for allegedly bringing 2kg of cocaine into South Africa from São Paulo, Brazil. She had allegedly wrapped the drugs on the upper part of her body.
In September 2010, another flight attendant was caught with 3kg of cocaine in her underwear at London’s Heathrow Airport. She is serving a jail sentence in a UK prison.
Patricia Gerber, from the advocacy organisation Locked Up in a Foreign Country, said Australia had strict measures when it came to drug trafficking and the chances of one being handed a light sentence was virtually impossible.
“There are over 3000 South Africans sitting in foreign prisons for drug offences,” she said. These included 300 in Brazil, 12 in Thailand and five in China.
Drug expert Walter Petersen, director of the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (Sanca) in Durban, said some people see drug smuggling as the fastest way to make money. Smugglers can get paid out more than R50000 a trip depending on the narcotics, he said.
“Those in the airline industry for a long period know the ins and outs of airports and those dabbling in drug smuggling believe they will never get caught.”
Petersen said that in most cases those caught, whether innocent or not, seem to accept their fate and plead guilty as the odds of being released are against them.
"In Govender’s case her career has been ruined as this offence is now a lifetime record and even after she serves her sentence the chances of her getting a job in another airline will be impossible.”