Thursday, June 13, 2024

Reflection on yesterday’s Africa 

Whenever I open Pre-1969 former Molefi Secondary School student’s whatsapp and see the name Neo Mokgautsi, it reminds me of a frustrating cross boarder trip which Dan Mokgautsi, her husband and I undertook to East and West Africa in 1987. Mokgautsi was working in the Registrar’s office at the University of Botswana at the time. He is now retired and he maybe in Mmadinare or Gaborone. He is enjoying his retirement.

 I spoke to him by phone recently asking if he ever remembers the troubles we had in Nairobi, Kenya. He vividly recalled those frustrating moments when immigration officers threatened to send us back to the South.  It was as if they smelt apartheid from our clothes. The manner in which they handled our passports was contemptuous to say the least. But Mokgautsi was not bothered. He was used to such kind of treatment having pre previously been subjected to inhuman treatment when he was hurriedly declared a prohibited immigrant in Tanzania. He says he was ordered out with immediate effect. 

For us to have been travelling together was something that had not been pre-arranged. We unexpectedly met at Jan Smarts Airport in Johannesburg, now renamed O.R. Tambo International Airport. His destination was Nairobi, Kenya while mine was Accra, Ghana. But I was to spend a night transiting in Nairobi. This story will demonstrate that contrary to what most people think, cross-border flight journeys are not always pleasant. During the apartheid era, it was frustrating to travel within African Continent, especially to those countries which were either one-party state or were under military rules.  However, things have changed for the better since the end of apartheid in South Africa and the coming into effect of democratically elected governments across most of Africa.

In 1987, Kenya was a one-party state. On arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, we joined the long queue to complete immigration formalities. Mokgautsi was in front of me. After paging through his passport, the officers ordered him off the queue saying he was an undesirable element because his passport had stamps showing that he was a regular visitor to apartheid South Africa. He was to be sent back. While waiting to hear our fate, another plane landed and the queue stretched annoyingly. The airport was very busy. The third plane landed and we had to wait until they were finished with visitors.

Ultimately, they called for Mokgautsi’s passport again and when they paged through thoroughly, they found out that in fact he had been declared a prohibited immigrant in Tanzania. The officer said to him, “look for that matter you have been declared a prohibited immigrant in Tanzania and you think Kenya can admit you”. “Bring yours Mr.” the officer commanded me. The only problem with me was South African date stamps. We were told that we would have to board the next plane back to the South because we were not “suitable” for Kenya.  I asked them to hear me out first. The mistake they made was agreeing to listen to my submissions. I asked them to look further into my passport to see that I had been to Kenya before. It was on three different occasions, two of which I was on transit to Ethiopia for the OAU and the third being in President Masire’s entourage on a state visit. That time we were all staying at the state house which is a high security area. I argued that throughout all those previous visits to Kenya, apartheid was still in existence in South Africa and I had been visiting that country. “Your story is too long Mr. cut it short”, I was ordered by one of the officers.

In conclusion, I asked access to the telephone to phone their Minister of Foreign Affairs whom I mentioned by name. I could see from the body language that I was winning. The submission was very strong. The officers said they could compromise by admitting me only. I turned down their offer explaining that it would be helpless because Mokgautsi was the team leader. At the end, we were all admitted into Kenya. In my view, those officers were enforcing the Kenyan position on people who had had contact with people from apartheid.

Kenya had a long standing policy of not interacting with people from South Africa because of the policy of apartheid. President, Daniel Arap Moi called off his trip to Swaziland in the 80s at last minute after learning that the South African President and Prime Minister were already in that country for the coronation of King Mswati ll. Although I was done with Kenya, my woes were not over yet.

The next day after lunch, I was aboard Ethiopian plane to Ghana. Indeed, a very long journey across the Mediterranean Sea. On arrival at Kotoka International Airport, I was asked to produce visa which I didn’t have. Immigration officials threatened to send me back. They would be right. However, I pleaded for forgiveness explaining that I was misled by the fact that Both Botswana and Ghana were members of the Commonwealth and that majority of member states did not require visas from citizens. They accused me of being negligent and I said it was an oversight. They said I should have checked with the relevant authority before my departure. I said indeed. After 30 minutes or so, I fell into the hands of vultures called taxi men. They had been there while the other grabbed me by the hand. For them it seemed it was survival of the fittest. They all demanded to be paid in United States Dollars. I had US travelers’ cheques only. They all said that was not a problem. They would cash them at the bank without problems.

In the confusion that ensued, I heard my name being called out through airport loud speakers. United Nations officials who were at the airport to receive me were concerned that I had arrived yet I was nowhere to be found. The announcement rescued me from the lion’s jaws. I had been expected to go through the airport’s VIP lounge but I was not made aware of that prior to my departure from Botswana. I knew that diplomatic treatment was extended to me only if I were in the company of the president. Besides that, I travelled like an ordinary person. My engagement in Accra was two-fold. The first week was devoted for training participants on the functions of World Federations of United Nations Associations. (WFUNA). The second week was a United Nations International Conference on the eradication of apartheid. Participants came from Europe and Africa. From the Customs Union area, only Botswana and Lesotho attended. The Pan Africanist Congress was represented by Joe Mkhwanazi who was leaving in exile.

At the close of the conference delegates were advised to keep some Cedes in their pockets “for the boys at the airport”. If that was not corruption, I don’t know what it was. We all obliged. I did so because I had heard stories of one page missing if you did not deposit money inside your passport. Otherwise the boys at the airport would ensure that you miss the plane.  The thing about the boys at the airport seemed a common practice among certain African countries even if they were not sanctioned by their governments. On May 1991, a Botswana delegation of advanced party led by Ambassador Oteng Tebape to the OAU meeting in Abuja, Nigeria battled hard to repel a group of boys trying to take possession of the delegates’ baggage without requesting. That happened in Lagos’s domestic airport. The boys were vicious and could be harmful. They failed because we were numerically stronger and all of us except the ambassador were confrontational as well. Two days after arriving in Abuja, a delegation of three Batswana led by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Gaositwe Chiepe was forcefully made to part with a few bucks. The Minister paid for herself as well as for Ambassadors Legwaila Legwaila and Edwin Matenge because the two ambassadors did not have cash in their possession. She nearly missed the plane. The doors were about to be closed when she boarded. The boys at the airport did not distinguish between diplomats and ordinary travelers.

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