South African Hajj pilgrims might well be up in arms about the illegal sale of visas and the alleged corruption of certain tour operators, but historically, Hajj rip-offs are as old as the Hajj itself, a sacred Abrahamic ritual.
Wherever people have journeyed to Mecca, carrying their precious silver, gold or cash, there have been predators waiting in the shadows. To visit Mecca during the lunar month of Dhul Hijjah is only incumbent on a Muslim once in a lifetime, but its hardships are legend.
Chronicles by mediaeval authors such as Nasir Khusrow, Ibn Battuta and Ibn Jubair talk of the dangers of Hajj travel, and relate heart-rending stories of people being robbed of their belongings and money en-route.
Hardly a century ago, the Hajji could not enjoy the guarantee of a safe return home. For most pilgrims, the Hajj would take several months of arduous travel by sea and land.
And if concerns about physical safety weren’t enough (Ibn Sa’ud only chased away highway robbers on the Jeddah-Mecca road in the 1920’s) there would be the challenges of malaria, bubonic plague, yellow fever, TB and cholera.
Air travel, inoculation and air-conditioned buses have certainly reduced the discomfort of the Hajj. But with it have come different challenges. Safety, comfort and the affordability of air travel have meant that more people can visit Mecca.
This is borne out by figures released by the Saudi Press Agency. In 1950, 100,000 pilgrims gathered on the plains of Arafat, the locus of the Hajj. By 1983 this number had increased to one million pilgrims.
In 1988 this led the Organisation of Islamic Countries (the OIC) to pass a resolution on Hajj quotas to ensure that the Saudi infrastructure could cope. This agreement, which allows a country to only send one pilgrim for each 100,000 persons, restricts the total Hajj quota today to about 2½ million – which is its limit.
Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country on earth, has a quota of 221,000.
For decades South Africa, with a Muslim minority population, existed under the Hajj radar. A special Saudi dispensation to South African Muslims during apartheid was that they could get visas on entry to the country.
This meant that the South African Hajj was not regulated, and each year an average 8,000 South Africans would perform its rites. By the early 1990’s our Hajj industry had grown to be worth more than R220 million annually.
In 1994 with the advent of diplomatic accord after apartheid, the South African Hajj landscape began to change. The South African Hajj and ‘Umrah Council (SAHUC) – recognised by the Saudi Hajj Ministry – was established to act as a regulatory body to liaise with the Hajj authorities.
Formed with the best of intentions by a former ANC parliamentarian, SAHUC was met with scepticism by the community, especially the Hajj agents who saw their turf threatened. Many slated SAHUC – whose executive members came from community organisations – as being incompetent.
Hajj numbers, however, stayed up. It was only in 2004 that South Africa was obliged to accept a quota, 3,500 pilgrims. In addition to these new restrictions, travel agents had to lodge sizeable deposits in Saudi Arabia, and abide by a code of conduct under which they had to be accredited by SAHUC.
Hajj totals were cut by half, and SAHUC instituted an online application system designed at grading pilgrims according to first time needs. The system was swamped and just over 10,000 applied for Hajj. Glitches in the system caused suspicion, allegations of nepotism and widespread dissatisfaction.
This led to the formation of an organisation called Hajj Watch, one that claims SAHUC is illegally constituted, has no mandate to represent pilgrims and should be disbanded.
With demand now outstripping supply by over 50%, smaller Hajj agents struggled to meet their commitments. The multi-million rand industry went into a tailspin. The attrition rate amongst Hajj operators would be high. Many went out of business or had to merge with bigger companies to survive.
For pilgrims all was not entirely lost as the Hajj Ministry would usually grant South Africans a further 1,500 visas just before the Hajj. This would bring the total up to 5,000 – but would still be 3,000 short of the average figure.
The additional visas, I was informed by Saudi authorities, came from poor sub-Saharan countries unable to fill their quotas.
But this year many prospective South African pilgrims were shocked. The Hajj Ministry – also having to deal with the logistics of a Mecca under re-construction – had strictly applied OIC diktats.
The OIC and the Saudis estimate that there are 2½ million Muslims here, and so the 2011 Hajj quota was 2, 500, the lowest ever. The additional quota of 500 was also the lowest ever too, and it left SAHUC facing an angry constituency, as it only met the needs of 10% of those waiting in the Hajj queue.
One can then imagine the fury of those in line when news broke that 11 Hajj operators had been fingered in a “highest bidder gets served” visa scandal. Hajj visas are issued free by the Saudi embassies and their sale is illegal. Visa corruption is the scourge of many a Hajj mission.
What has to be noted about visa selling locally is that it has been going on for years, even reportedly within the inner circle of SAHUC. In 2004 I exposed a visa tout on Voice of the Cape radio, as well as other cons by certain Hajj operators.
But with Hajj being a seasonal thing, passions soon wane after it passes. And that, combined with SAHUC’s constitutional limitations in punishing miscreants, has always been the problem in rooting out the offenders.
And never more urgent has the call been for agencies such as the Public Protector to intervene in the Hajj, a sacred South African Muslim institution that is not only riven with widespread dissatisfaction, but alleged malpractice.