How I became an illegal immigrant.

After a great day in Nata, on the salt pans of Botswana, I drove to the capital, Gaborone. Truth be told, I had no desire to spend much time there and nothing specific to visit. However, I had to cut the leg to my next destination in half, in order to avoid a ridiculously long drive. The next morning, I left early and headed for the Molopo border post.

I parked my car in front of the Botswana Customs building and went in. In this region of the World, one always has to visit the Immigration Department, the Customs Department, and sometimes the National Police, both upon entering and exiting the country. After talking to all concerned and filling all the required paperwork, the Botswana authorities gave me a piece of paper and told me to give it to the person at the gate. So far, very typical. The gatekeeper basically checks that paper to make sure you did go to the places you were supposed to go to.

I got in my car and started driving very slowly, looking for the gate. I saw a lot of things that could have been gates. Little sheds with people in or out of uniform, more people in uniform sitting in the shade of a tree, gates/sheds/buildings with nobody in them. There were lots of people around in different uniforms, but it certainly wasn’t clear what they were doing. In fact, if they were doing anything at all, it was far from apparent. I flashed the little paper to a few of them and they just waved me forward. I drove around a line of parked trucks, a few curbs, and then I saw a group of policemen who were surprisingly standing up, as opposed to sitting in the shade of a tree. I pulled down the window and asked them where I was supposed to give the Botswana paper. “You can keep it, just go”. I proceeded towards the South African border post.

In some places, there is a significant distance between countries’ border posts, with a sort of no man’s land in between. I wasn’t surprised at first, but after several hundred meters, I started finding it strange. Hundred of meters then turned into a couple of kilometres, so I thought the border might be in one of the shared National Parks, with border posts on either end. I had never seen that, but it was the only explanation that came to mind. Then, I saw a few houses. Now, nobody lives between borders so I stopped the car and asked a passing villager a question I had never asked anyone in my life.

“Excuse me Sir, what country is this?”

Looking very puzzled, he answered: “South Africa”.

I was stunned! In a country with critical problems of weapons, drugs, stolen diamonds and all sorts of other traffic, as well as a huge influx of illegal immigrants, I had driven right through a border post with at least 30 cops, illegally, BY ACCIDENT!

Now, as amusing as that might have seemed, I was very conscious that South Africa has a centralized and computerized immigration database. I could perhaps invent a story about the immigration agent having forgotten to put the entry stamp in my passport, put I would have no way of explaining to the authorities at the Johannesburg airport why my passport had never been “scanned in” and thus, why I was in South Africa. This could mean serious problems, and the corrupt officials I would have to bribe at South Africa’s biggest airport might be of a much higher rank  – and therefore price – than lowly border cops in a remote part of the country. So, I decided to go back even though I might get in trouble.

I figured the last cop to wave me through was ultimately the one to blame and could possibly even get in trouble himself. Therefore, he might be willing to help fix the problem in a quiet manner. I found him and tried to talk to him discreetly.

– “When I showed you this paper, you told me to drive through.”

– “Yeah, that’s the Botswana paper, you can keep it.”

– “But I haven’t gone through any South African controls!”

– “You didn’t go through immigration?”

– “No immigration, no nothing!”

– (Speaking as if this was the most uninteresting conversation of the day) “Oh, well you have to go.”

– “But where is it?!?”

– “It’s the building with the red roof.”

– “Thanks.”

I drove back, parked my car and found the building. The road to it was fenced off, with a big arrow pointing right. Of course, the first time around, I turned right. What I didn’t now was that the arrow actually means “stop your car, walk through the opening in the fence, go to the building with the red roof, do all the paperwork, get back in your car and then turn right”. Obvious, really.

I went through Immigration and gave Customs the paper they had made me fill when I left the country at the Namibian border. There, I had been told to register all my expensive belongings with a serial code so I wouldn’t be suspected of importing them when I re-entered the country (computer, camera, etc). The Customs lady had no idea what it was. She asked around and since nobody seemed to know, she put a random stamp on it and gave it back to me.

I got back to my car and as I was about to drive away, a police sergeant stopped me and gave me the royal treatment: passport, immigration paper, drivers license, letter from the car rental agency allowing the border crossing, everything. He was obviously trying to find something wrong so he could threaten me with a large fine which could be forgotten for a smaller bribe, but I was totally above board. He then asked me if I had any Canadian money, as he was curious to see what it looked like. I did, stashed with hundreds of US$ which I was certainly not going to pull out in front of a South African cop, so I lied.

I had pulled out my wallet to get my drivers’ license, and I had a few Namibian dollars sticking out. He asked me if I was going to use them, because if not, he could. I said I was going to change them. I guess he then ran out of options, so he just went for it:

– “So, are you going to give me a tip?”

– “Hum… no.”

– “But it’s hot, I want to buy a cold drink.”

I daydreamed for a second about doing South Africa a favour by running him over with my car, took a deep breath and firmly said:

– “No, that would not be a good idea.”

– “… [silence] … Botswana’s that way.”

– “I’m going to South Africa.”

– “Oh, well you’re gonna have to turn your car around.”

– “I know.”

I drove off. The sad thing is that none of the South Africans I told the story to were particularly surprised, either by the corruption or the abject incompetence. Thinking of all the corruption stories I had heard both from people I met and by listening to call-in radio shows during my road trip, I don’t now why I was surprised myself. Maybe because I had not experienced it so far. Of course, that was the first time I spoke to a South African cop with no witnesses around. Putting it that way, I guess the bribe request was 1 in 1, or 100% corrupt.

It is sad to see a country like South Africa gradually slide into ever increasing levels of corruption. The stories I heard were pathetic. Things like high level Government jobs for professionals going to ANC cronies who don’t know the first thing about how to do them, but it doesn’t matter, as they just use a portion of their salary to subcontract the hard parts of the job. Sadder still is the fact that things will obviously get progressively worse in any foreseeable future, as there is no politically credible alternative to the ruling ANC. Of course, this doesn’t mean there is anything intrinsically wrong with the ANC (I certainly wouldn’t be one to know as an uninformed outside observer). But any party in Government for 2 decades, with no threat whatsoever to it’s hold on power, would become corrupt, in any country. It’s only a question of how corrupt.

When people in Canada (and the US) complain and loose interest in politics because they have only two real parties to choose from, they have no idea how lucky they are not to have only one. When I casually mentioned I came from Canada, on two separate occasions white South Africans told me they were considering moving to Canada “if things got bad” (i.e. if South Africa turned into Zimbabwe). I certainly hope it never gets to that.


4 thoughts on “How I became an illegal immigrant.

  1. Pingback: The end of the big road trip | Colin's Notes

  2. Pingback: African mishaps and my somewhat random top 10 travel tips. | Colin's Notes

  3. Wow! Very interesting to hear a foreigner’s take on the current realities in my beloved country. You have witnessed the truth of the situation for yourself and I totally agree with your comment “But any party in Government for 2 decades, with no threat whatsoever to it’s hold on power, would become corrupt, in any country. It’s only a question of how corrupt”.

    On the brighter side…I’m really enjoying reading about your travels in our beautiful country.

    • There’s a lot more travelling I wish to do in your beautiful country! As for the corruption, even in Canada we had a very small taste of the sense of entitlement when the Liberal Party stayed 13 years in power between 1993 and 2006. Nothing fundamentally wrong with the Liberals or the ANC, they just need to loose once in a while. My dearest wish for South Africa is a second party that can take power for a few years before the ANC and the Government become one and the same. When that happens, it’s very hard t undo. And thanks for the compliments :-)

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