South African hujaaj are being denied access to low-cost haj packages because of a monopoly run by local tour operators, according to a prominent community activist. Recent press reports in Saudi Arabia indicate the availability of more affordable packages within the kingdom, which are targeted at those who finds themselves not within their means to afford travel and accommodation costs for the holy journey. These range between SR3, 000 and SR5, 000, which equates to around R9650 and R16 100 respectively.
The packages are not limited to Saudi nationals, and are often taken up by prospective pilgrims in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Indonesia amongst others. They also reportedly allow access to special waqf properties, where those unable to cover accommodation may spend the duration of the hjj period free of charge.
But according to Imraahn Mukaddam from advocacy group Hajj Watch, this was being denied to South Africans by the South African Haj and Umrah Council (Sahuc) and local operators, who deemed prospective pilgrims within the country as being “in a position to pay for the more expensive packages”.
“It is actually an unfortunate situation that we now have where people are being accredited but are declining because they can’t afford the packages. I am sure that if there is enough commitment from SAHUC and the South Africa hajj operators, we could put together a budget package that would make it affordable for Muslims to go for Hajj,” he said.
Mukaddam said this situation came about through a misconception that South Africans, being in a relatively developed country, were beyond staying in a lower budget accommodation. With hjj becoming more unaffordable by the year, he stressed that such a mind-set need be changed.
“We need operators to take up the challenge and find ways to make it affordable to those who have that wish to go, but are being denied access to the most holy of rights because of costs,” he stated.
He added that it was up to South African administrators to engage with those making the decisions on who would qualify for such a package, which it would make it be known that there were South Africans who were not in the means to afford the current package options.
“In the SADC (Southern African Development Community) region we have countries where Muslims would qualify for these subsidized rates, and if we can amalgamate with the rest of the region, there shouldn’t be any ceiling for us to access these packages,” he said.
In response Sahuc president Shaheen Essop acknowledged the availability of the packages in question, but stressed that these were related specifically to accommodation at the camps and not an actual hotel or building. He also rejected the notion that the costs were available to all.
“This specific package of low-cost is offered to people within Saudi Arabia for the camps on the five days of haj. It states that quite specifically,” he explained.
Comparing the prices to that which South Africans were currently paying on camp accommodation, the supposed ‘low-cost’ rates were in fact more. According to Essop, local pilgrims for the same services were paying around SR880 for non-special service camps and SR2800 for special service camps.
In February, Sahuc was in attendance at a haj-related conference in Malaysia and after interactions with representatives from several other countries, Essop suggested South Africans were fortunate that local costs were below the average of around $5000 for the entire journey.
“Malaysia for example does a subsidy to their pilgrims, charging $5600 for four weeks Hajj at four in a room. If you go with private companies, your price ranges from $7000 to $10 000,” he said, adding that by comparison SA was relatively cheap.
“Don’t say that there are cheap packages available out of Saudi Arabia for the rest of the world, when this is directed at the 50% cut-quota for the Saudi’s that are going to be permitted to make haj.” VOC (Mubeen Banderker)