Custom-made to keep border safe
THABISO THAKALI spends time with OR Tambo Airport officials and finds a crew dedicated to protecting the country
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.