Custom-made to keep bor­der safe

THABISO THAKALI spends time with OR Tambo Air­port of­fi­cials and finds a crew ded­i­cated to pro­tect­ing the coun­try

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

NH­LANHLA Zuma and his team spend more than eight hours a day watch­ing peo­ple. That’s their job and they’ve be­come ex­perts on hu­man be­hav­iour and move­ment. Zuma, a cus­toms and bor­der man­age­ment port com­man­der, and his of­fi­cers work the early shift at OR Tambo In­ter­na­tional in Jo­han­nes­burg, when most in­ter­na­tional flights land.

They process more than 1 500 pas­sen­gers an hour at South Africa’s busiest air­port. That num­ber is ex­pected to dou­ble to 3 000 an hour when the World Cup be­gins in June

Fam­i­lies with scream­ing chil­dren and groups of ex­cited teenagers are just some of the peo­ple who pass through ar­rival im­mi­gra­tion desks head­ing to the carousels at the air­port.

It is just af­ter 6.45am, a few min­utes be­fore crunch time.

Cus­toms of­fi­cials teeter on the front line of the gov­ern­ment’s bal­anc­ing act be­tween se­cur­ing its bor­der and de­liv­er­ing a last­ing im­pres­sion of cus­tomer ser­vice ev­ery day to thou­sands of vis­i­tors, for­eign­ers and re­turn­ing cit­i­zens.

The lug­gage from the arriving in­ter­na­tional planes is al­ready loaded on to the con­veyor belt, as­cend­ing to the bag­gage carousels. Two dogs run along­side the tread­mill sniff­ing each bag.

A suit­case gets one of the dogs scratch­ing ex­cit­edly as a woman trav­el­ling with her two chil­dren re­trieves her bag. By 7am the rush is in full swing. Three plain-clothed of­fi­cials stand­ing aside a ta­ble look non­cha­lant as suit­cases are ex­am­ined and repacked.

A mo­ment later, a hand­ful of pas­sen­gers who have been pulled over stand silently near the ta­ble in­side the con­trol area as their bags are opened by cus­toms agents.

“Well, thank you for un­der­stand­ing,” says one of­fi­cial to a passenger af­ter check­ing his bag. Wit­ness­ing this ex­change, Zuma looks im­pressed.

“It’s a tough job,” he quips. “Our ap­proach is risk based and those we have pro­filed will be pulled over, but above all we try to make sure that peo­ple com­ing through our bor­der are pro­cessed as swiftly as pos­si­ble.”

Mi­nor dra­mas play out through­out the day. Amid the ca­coph­ony, the of­fi­cials re­main com­posed. Be­sides looking for drugs, they have learnt to watch for con­cealed pets. They have even caught trav­ellers with live snakes in their hand­bags.

In his su­per­vi­sory role, Zuma helps to de­ter­mine whether the of­fend­ing car­ri­ers are sim­ply un­aware of the rules or de­lib­er­ately ig­nor­ing them.

“Many vis­i­tors, for in­stance, like bring­ing food items from their own coun­tries, but in terms of our rule book, some are pro­hib­ited here.”

He also steps in when there are com­plaints. In a re­cent case, a prom­i­nent uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor in­sti­tuted an R8-mil­lion claim against cus­toms of­fi­cials af­ter he claimed he had been ha­rassed and his lug­gage dam­aged.

But Zuma in­sists his of­fi­cers had done noth­ing wrong and he has video footage to prove this.

“Some­times peo­ple choose to ig­nore the rules on what and how much can be brought into the coun­try without pay­ing du­ties. Some even go as far as re­sist­ing be­ing searched, hence we of­ten have to call the po­lice,” he says. “It is dif­fi­cult to ex­plain why such items are not al­lowed and of­ten peo­ple think we are just tar­get­ing them.”

Cus­toms’ turf cov­ers two check­point ar­eas – cargo and pas­sen­gers – and, work­ing with po­lice, the teams ro­tate po­si­tions to re­main fresh in ex­e­cut­ing their du­ties that could be­come mo­not­o­nous.

“It helps to keep us in the game,” Zuma adds. “Our task starts when pas­sen­gers be­gin fetch­ing their bags from the carousels, but by then we will have long had an in­di­ca­tion of what to ex­pect.”

How­ever, custom’s crit­ics are vo­cal. They ar­gue that the process is mere win­dow dress­ing, that the rules are in­con­sis­tently ap­plied and that en­force­ment is ar­bi­trary, dis­crim­i­na­tory and in­fringes on peo­ple’s rights to dig­nity.

But Zuma is too in­tent on the tasks at hand to re­spond to such crit­i­cism. When he does, he is diplo­matic.

“Pro­fil­ing is a tool used by cus­toms to at­tend to el­e­ments of risk,” he stresses. “This is done to look at the risk that a per­son poses in terms of du­ties or other se­cu­rity is­sues. It helps to en­sure that every­one com­ing into the coun­try does not pose a risk to South Africa.”

Zuma says he took this job be­cause he truly wanted to make a dif­fer­ence.

And if he was ever eas­ily em­bar­rassed, he isn’t any­more. He men­tions an in­ci­dent where a young passenger he had pro­filed and sus­pected of be­ing a drug car­rier re­quested to go to the toi­let to re­lieve him­self of the drugs he had swal­lowed. “You can tell when a per­son is tak­ing out drugs… the smell is dif­fer­ent.”

He is talk­ing from ex­pe­ri­ence. Be­tween June and July last year, his team reached a mile­stone in the fight against drugs with 17 seizures a month, the high­est num­ber they had ever reached.

“They come through so of­ten there is not so much to talk about,” he adds.

“Dur­ing events like the Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup and World Cup, some peo­ple think the flood­gates are opened at air­ports and bring in all sorts of il­licit stuff.”

And then again, there are give­aways. “There are bizarre habits you can eas­ily pick up – if it’s win­ter and there’s some­one who won’t stop sweat­ing like he had been run­ning, or some­one who is sud­denly in a hurry just af­ter pass­ing through im­mi­gra­tion desk.”

But then also he says: “You get high-pro­file peo­ple telling you that they did not strug­gle to be sub­jected to this kind of hu­mil­i­a­tion com­ing into their own coun­try, but I al­ways tell them we are do­ing our job.”

Cus­toms of­fi­cials un­dergo crim­i­nal back­ground and med­i­cal checks. They have to be able to speak English pro­fi­ciently.

New re­cruits com­plete five months of train­ing and every­one is sub­jected to a screen­ing process.

“We re­fresh ev­ery year with spe­cialised train­ing on new trends, coun­ter­feit­ing, drug traf­fick­ing and tar­iffs,” ex­plains Zuma.

“Cus­toms has evolved from be­ing a money col­lec­tions agency in the form of du­ties and taxes to be­ing part of the coun­try’s se­cu­rity clus­ter through drug de­tec­tion and preven­tion of money laun­der­ing. The se­cu­rity of the coun­try is in part in our hands and what we are do­ing here has a huge im­pact on it.”

To make sure the coun­try can han­dle the ex­pected mas­sive in­flux of vis­i­tors com­ing to the World Cup, cus­toms au­thor­i­ties will in­crease the num­ber of of­fi­cials de­ployed in the con­trol area.

There will soon also be in­ter­preters pro­fi­cient in French, Span­ish and Por­tuguese de­ployed to help cus­toms.

Zuma feels the air­port is be­com­ing a new way of wel­com­ing vis­i­tors into the coun­try. He is looking at pos­si­bly pro­cess­ing at least 3 000 peo­ple an hour closer to the World Cup.


PLUG­GING THE GAPS: Cus­toms and bor­der con­trol per­son­nel at OR Tambo Air­port have a wide area of re­spon­si­bil­ity.

NOSE FOR BUSI­NESS: Sniffer dogs like Vlooi, a Jack Rus­sell, are used to find drugs.

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