An astounding story front-paged in The Sunday Times on 22 May 2016, detailing the “smuggling” of a Burundian civilian in 2014 with the help of South Africa’s Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. The minister used an official plane on an official trip for a personal favour which involved evading normal port authorities for the reason that her passenger was entering SA illegally. Even if SA authorities made an exception, it is an astounding one and inextricably linked to the fact that the favour was bestowed on Wege by virtue of her friendship with the minister and the latter’s family.
The Sunday Times story also referenced a smoking gun scenario in which the same minister’s sister is implicated for allegedly helping to organise false travelling documents using her (then) position as deputy ambassador for SA to Burundi.
The minister responded to the story in a 24-paragraph statement. The latter attempted to portray the entire matter as an act of extreme benevolence towards an abused child friend in need.
However, when one starts unpacking the minister’s statement, one can’t help (despite the tears of sympathy the story might elicit) but stare right into the gaping holes in her version.
The minister would have us believe that the Burundian national in question, one Michelle Wege, had planned to visit the minister’s children in SA but that Wege’s father had taken her passport on the scheduled day of leaving Burundi for SA. Further, that the confiscated passport still had three months left on a previous visitor’s permit to SA.
Wege then, according to the minister’s version, sought refuge with friends and family in Burundi and managed to obtain “travelling documents” to cross the Burundian border into the DRC under an assumed name.
Immediately the red flares go up. Astoundingly, the minister is telling us that Wege had obtained falsified travel documents to enter the DRC under a false identity. Who assisted Wege in this regard, is of course, conveniently not addressed by the minister. It is on this score that one has to turn to the Sunday Times front pager where it relates that the minister’s own sister, Nosithembele, had been suspended by the SA ambassador to Burundi on allegations of assisting a Burundian national in obtaining falsified travel documents for travel into the DRC with the end destination being SA. According to The Sunday Times, the suspension was later cancelled due to senior politicians’ pressure.
The only comment the minister had on the latter allegations (her sister’s possible aid in obtaining falsified travel documents) is that she doesn’t know how Wege obtained the false documents in Burundi, because she is not going to poke her nose into the SA embassy affairs on this matter as it’s not her place to do so. Yet, as you will later see, the same minister had no qualms poking her nose into the matter when Wege was caught with the false travel documents in the DRC.
Also, the folks at DIRCO (who gained some notoriety for bending travel rules – think Guptagate and Al-Bashir’s great escape) are refusing to discuss the issue of the suspension, the allegations or the subsequent lifting of the suspension. As if South African taxpayers have no right to know when and why our public servants are suspended or when and why same suspension is then lifted. Lest one forget that if the minister’s sister had indeed acted as alleged it would constitute common law fraud which is a criminal offence.
The minister also fails to explain why Wege did not, while having refuge with her Burundian family members and friends, simply apply for a temporary or replacement Burundian passport.
Be this as it may, the fact is, on the minister’s own version Wege crossed into the DRC illegally and then presented herself to the SA embassy, revealing her true identity so that the embassy could (with the help of a letter from the minister) assist Wege to obtain a visa for travel to SA. According to the minister, in these circumstances Wege was a “classical case for refugee status”.
This is where one has to push the pause button for a moment. We are told she is now a refugee. We are not told whether she then proceeds to go through the normal channels of seeking asylum – which is an application to the SA embassy. No, in fact what transpires at the SA embassy is left completely out of the story except to say the embassy was asked to help Wege obtain a visa to travel to SA. It isn’t clear whether she was granted asylum or whether a visa was issued on some other basis. In the next scene the minister’s version then takes a gigantic leap of convenience to where we find Wege arrested by customs officers of the DRC while she attempts to board an SAA flight to Johannesburg. On the minister’s own version the DRC officials had concerns about how Wege had obtained DRC travel documents.
Remember now, those are the same documents which the same minister had already conceded were false. The only reasonable conclusion is that Wege was attempting to board a plane to SA using false DRC documents and a visa for entry into SA containing the same false identity particulars. The implication is that the South African embassy in the DRC knowingly aided a false identity carrier with a visa on those very same false identity particulars. Absolutely remarkable. If so, a crime was again commited by embassy officials.
This also implies that Wege was not in fact given asylum as a refugee, because if she had been granted assylum that would vacate the need to use the false travel documents. So why does the minister so disingenuously attempt to portray Wege as a refugee?
Because, dear reader, it fits the rescued victim narrative.
Wege was detained for 10 days by the DRC authorities at which time the minister undertook an official trip (with an official SA Air Force plane) which required engagements in the DRC and Ethiopia. According to the minister, she engaged the DRC authorities at ministerial level, who reported that they had investigated how Wege had obtained DRC travel documents and had concluded their investigation. Again the minister doesn’t tell us what the conclusion was though. She simply states that in order to avoid Wege being deported to Burundi, she offered to take Wege with her on the Air Force plane and ultimately on to SA.
It is at this point in the minister’s story that she makes a cringeworthy claim. She boldly declares that fortunately Wege had an electronic copy of her Burundian passport and SA visa on a memory stick – and that this enabled Wege’s valid and legal travel into SA on an official Air Force plane. Is the minister seriously suggesting that one may cross international borders, more particularly SA borders, legally by being in possession of only an electronic copy of one’s passport and visa? Jaw-dropping stuff.
If this was at all possible why not just take a commercial flight from the DRC to SA? The answer to that question is clear – no immigration and customs authorities at either the DRC or SA ports of entry (or any other country for that matter) would ever allow a traveller armed with only an electronic copy of travel documents past their gates. What are they supposed to do, stamp the traveller’s memory stick?
The minister knows very well it wouldn’t stick. So she decided to allow Wege, a civilian, to board an Air Force plane, knowing very well that the return to SA would not be through the civilian ports of entry.
Both the Guptagate and Al-Bashir sagas (which I wrote on previously) clearly illustrated Waterkloof Air Force base’s susceptibility to abuse and bending of international customs protocol. It would be dead easy to leave her name off the passenger list (like with Al-Bashir) and simply sweep her away in a VIP cavalcade off the Waterkloof base and thereby evade the customs official (if there even was one on duty at the time of Wege’s arrival in SA).
I previously detailed that passports are handed in bulk to the Waterkloof customs official who don’t have the chance to verify the passports against the actual passengers’ faces. In any event the customs official only gets the passports of those on the passenger list.
Which of course begs the question – was Wege actually placed on the passenger list? If not, that would constitute a serious violation of aviation regulations and SANDF official policy. If Wege was included on the passenger list, what passport was handed to the customs official at Waterkloof? A memory stick? Why would a customs official regard an electronic copy of travel documents as adequate at Waterkloof when he wouldn’t allow it at any other port of entry?
Furthermore, civilians need a special authorisation from the SANDF to travel in military aircraft, vessels and vehicles. Authorisation can never legally be granted for any passenger who is travelling for purely personal non-official reasons. Getting into SA without valid physical travel documents does not constitute an official reason just because the Minister of Defence happens to be one’s friend.
Wege had no official engagement or interest in state business and was on the minister’s own version in a purely personal and civilian predicament. If we accept Wege as having been on board the Air Force plane legally, then we might as well tell a military driver it’s okay to go on an official trip with a military vehicle and pick up a friend who is in domestic trouble serious enough to warrant him (in the driver’s view) hitching a ride in an official car. It is called a transgression of the Military Discipline Code – “Abuse of State equipment and vehicles”, and it carries a prison sentence.
The minister also fails to explain how she managed to get Wege a study visa for SA after her arrival here, if on her own version Wege was not in possession of a physical passport. Fact is, Wege entered this country illegally. Either the study visa was unlawfully issued (with probable influence from the minister), or she doesn’t in fact have any study visa. Either way, that would make Wege’s stay in SA illegal. Any other soul who finds him or herself in SA without a physical passport will be booted out by authorities. Hopefully Wege had in the meantime through the Burundian embassy in SA obtained a proper passport to legalise her visa to stay here. Unfortunately the minister doesn’t tell us a thing on this score – which simply leaves her story open to further speculation and doubt.
Personally I have a problem defining a person in their 20s as a “child”, as the minister has referred to Wege. There are soldiers in the minister’s own SANDF who are 18 and 19 years old. Certainly she isn’t proposing that these soldiers are “children”? The minister in any event contradicts herself by referring to Wege as a “child” and later in the same statement as a “young woman”. But then, contradictions and evasiveness with facts are bound to occur when one attempts to justify a concocted narrative designed at eliciting sympathy to draw focus away from incontrovertible facts.
The minister used an official plane on an official trip for a personal favour which involved evading normal port authorities for the reason that her passenger was entering SA illegally. Even if SA authorities made an exception, it is an astounding one and inextricably linked to the fact that the favour was bestowed on Wege by virtue of her friendship with the minister and the latter’s family.
It pays to have friends with planes. DM
Pikkie Greeff joined SANDF in 1993 as law officer in prosecution and later Defence counsel. He was admitted as advocate to High Court in 1997. He started at SA National Defence Union (SANDU) in 1999 as chief legal advisor, and was appointed as SANDU National Secretary in 2008.