Just Two Flimsy Pieces of Paper, Yet All that Could Stand Between You and a Prison Cell

For all those of you moving to South Africa or simply taking a trip here, I thought I would share this cautionary tale. It’s actually a gem of a story I just happened to stumble upon last night, and ever on the hunt for writing material, I was practically already writing it while I heard it told.

We were all at a “girl’s night out” dinner, and the food by the way was fabulous. Then our hostess made us all play a game, in return for the fabulous food, and the game was “write something no one knows about you on a piece of paper and pull someone else’s paper from a sock and guess who that fact belongs to.”

Some of us, including me, were immediately frozen like a dear in the headlights, with no thoughts whatsoever forthcoming. Not a single embarrassing moment in over forty years of life presenting itself. And then there were those who “spent a night in a prison cell in Cape Town.” Are you kidding me? When the friend who this story belonged to was finally revealed, we all hung on her lips. I admit I was wildly jealous of her story. I can’t even get the Joburg cops to arrest me for all my traffic transgressions!

So this is what happened: She was living in Asia at the time, in one of those countries that might not have the most professional airline, and the opportunity to visit Cape Town with a couple of friends came up. It was going to be a great trip, made even greater by the prospect of flying business class by ways of a fortuitous upgrade. And all went well until the arrival in Cape Town and the minor hurdle of the immigration checkpoint. Her friends were waved through, but she was detained.


Because she didn’t have two consecutive empty pages in  her passport!

We all know how they tell you these things, right? And you think yeah yeah yeah, and it goes in one ear and out the other. Can’t be that important, you think. Well, you better think again. It’s very important. Except normally you’re not put in that situation because the airline will take a look at your passport when you check in and flag you right there, so that you never even embark on your fateful trip. But Hottentot Airlines here didn’t do that. So now you know that it is best to take on the task of checking immigration requirements and ensuring compliance your very own self. Unless of course you are hunting for a good story.

While we are at it, when you want to enter South Africa (and most other countries around us) your passport also has to be valid for at least six more months. That’s my favorite rule. I mean, why is there an expiration date in a passport if then some countries get to arbitrarily shorten the validity? What could go wrong in those last six months? Well, I guess they don’t want to get stuck with you not being able to be deported anywhere when it turns out you don’t have two empty pages in your passport!

Which is exactly what happened to my friend. Getting deported, I mean. But since the next flight wasn’t leaving until the next day, she had to spend the night in a prison cell first. Yep, a real cell locked with a key on a big bundle of keys, with bars in the front and a guard looking at her the entire night, no privacy whatsoever. She said she managed to not make use of the “facilities” (I imagined a bucked but didn’t inquire) for twenty-four hours, a feat in itself very admirable. Her husband, finally summoned out of a business meeting after fifteen failed calls – I could totally relate to that part, as often as I call Noisette at work with all-important questions like what movie should I get for tonight or which credit card should I use – managed to rouse their home country’s ambassador from sleep and talk him onto a plane from Pretoria to Cape Town, but alas he apparently didn’t have enough clout to make it past the prison guards. There was nothing to do for her but wait it out and be led back to the boarding gate by eight heavily armed guards the next morning.

I was slightly jealous of the ambassador part as well. To get your country’s ambassador to come specifically to try and rescue you? I wonder who’d come for me – the German or the American one? I’m pretty sure neither. The American one’s got bigger fish to fry, and the German one would probably give me a lecture on the virtues of keeping a tidy passport.

And the final insult for my detained friend? Deportations aren’t done on business class. Even if your ticket says so. I do suppose being deported on business class would be a bit weird. So back she had to fly, for over fifteen hours, on ECONOMY!

The moral of the story: If you want to avoid flying economy, do make sure there are plenty of empty pages in your passport.

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