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ACSA responds to allegations of religious profiling of Muslim women at SA airports

Annisa Essack| kzn@radioislam.org.za

2 min read
28 November 2022 | 17:00 PM CAT

Photo Credit: YouTube

Recently, South African Muslim women wearing the hijab have complained about unfair treatment by OR Tambo Airport security members, with more than 300 persons related their experiences.

Besides media reports detailing the grievances of aggrieved individuals, social media is buzzing with posts describing humiliating searches based on targeted profiling. 

These reports, which include complaints of full body searches and the request to remove the headscarf, have sparked outrage and fuelled the perception of unfair harassment experienced by Muslim travellers. It has prompted the question: “Is it fair to claim that OR Tambo International Airport (ORT) in Johannesburg is attaining notoriety as South Africa’s leading institution where Islamophobia is rampant?”

It also prompted the National Freedom Party (NFP) to condemn the reports swiftly and saw them call for an urgent investigation into ORT’s security policy.

The United Ulema Council of South Africa and the Muslim Judicial Council have met with representatives from ACSA to discuss the issues. Today Radio Islam International held a panel discussion with Airports Company of South Africa’s Group Executive: Enterprise Security and Compliance, General Mzwandile Petros and Jabulani Khambule, Regional General Manager for ACSA, to provide clarity on the issues raised.

1.         Is it necessary for Muslim women wearing headgear to be searched or screened?

General Mzwandile Petros responded, saying that the protocols for search procedures were documented. He explained that men would be required to remove their headgear and place it into the basket to allow it to be put through the scanner. For women, however, the official must pat down the headgear only and should there be any valid reason for the headgear to be removed, it should be done in private. He iterated that the search was not reserved for Muslim women only but included all passengers wearing headgear.

Petros said: “There is religious sensitivity in the procedure, and it is also applied. We are aware that there are cultures where women cannot take off their headgear, at least in public, and hence that procedure is taken care of.”

Furthermore, he explained that the protocol clearly states that men will be searched by men and women by women.

  1. Is it necessary for the headgear to be removed and separated for screening?

Once again, General Mzwandile Petros said that threats involving explosives had become more prevalent and screening equipment would not detect certain items. On the issue of women who had complained about officials forcing them to remove their headscarves, even though this was against the protocol, Jabulani Khambule, Regional General Manager for ACSA, clarified that there were “in odd cases” staff with behavioural issues.

He further emphasised that should a passenger request to be searched in private; they can make the through the official. He added that should the official, after patting down the headgear of a passenger, might have reason to check the headgear further, they are allowed to request for the removal of the headgear, but no passenger can be forced to do so. Again, the passenger can ask for this to be done in a private room or away from the public.

Khambule informed listeners that at security search points, especially at OR Tambo, managers were sitting directly opposite the screening machines and passengers who experienced any challenges could approach them for assistance. The managers were available throughout the day to ensure complaints against staff members and other issues were handled on the spot.

Regarding the more than 300 complaints, Khambule explained that the protocols were in place for some time and having viewed some footage, which does not include audio, there were no signs of any force used by the security officers.

“It was a matter of procedure that when you go through our metal detectors at our screening points, you will have to be searched if you are wearing headgear, regardless of religion, colour, creed or any other orientation.”

  1. Complaints about inconsistencies regarding procedures at South African airports

There have been several complaints that, at times, non-Muslims with headgear were not being stopped or checked, whereas Muslim women in hijab were consistently stopped. Furthermore, the process was not being carried out across all airports.

General Petros assured listeners that there was a standard operating procedure that had to be implemented across all airports, and the lapses may be due to staff turning a blind eye, and that has been addressed with the relevant managers to ensure implementation is across all airports.

4.         Reports on full body search even if the scanner does not beep

A random search process is implemented at all airports, meaning that one in every ten passengers will be chosen for a full body pat down. The scanners can be configured to select different numbers at the manager’s discretion and do not necessarily beep, but a light may come on. Officials can then do a full body search; however, passengers can request to have the examination done privately.

These searches ensure that smugglers and drug mules are unaware of who and when passengers would be pulled aside for a check.

An issue brought up by a caller was that a person wearing a wig should also be searched as Muslim women wearing a headscarf were. Jabulani Khumbule agreed that people wearing wigs were arrested after concealing drugs and other prohibited items in their hair, but wigs did not fall under this category.

He also mentioned that the policy highlighting the protocols would be posted in central search points that will communicate to passengers regarding the search process and the types of headgear that will cause searches.

  1. Are the instructions for these searches due to pressure from the United States authorities and alerts or even MOSSAD?

According to General Petros, there was no pressure from any government or group. However, he explained that the aviation sector was heavily regulated, and an independent body, Civil Aviation, regulated all airports across the country. An international body, the International Civil Aviation, also audited airports globally. He explained the ICA carried out regular and strict audits.

The current situation will be picked up and investigated, and a process that targets Muslims will make it difficult, particularly during the Hajj period when the scanners will have to be used to check each Muslim woman entering or leaving the airports, which will be detrimental to operations.

  1. What should be done if passenger rights are dismissed or infringed upon at South African airports?

Passengers who have complaints can use the social media platforms and the Customer Service number: (011) 921 6262 or the e-mail address: customercare @airports.co.za.

In cases where no response is received through the customer services number or social media platforms, the query can be escalated to either: General Mzwandile Petros: 082 990 9109 – or Jabulani Khambule – 062 953 8752.

In conclusion, Khambule assured the Muslim community that ACSA was not profiling nor discriminating against Muslim women and that staff training was done at 3-month intervals.

“Customer experience and how we treat our customers is of paramount importance to us. And we assure them that OR Tambo or ACSA is discriminating against nor profiling Muslim women particularly. We do not do that, not in this country, I repeat. Not in the name of OR Tambo, for which this airport was named after.”

He added that they have agreed to engage with the Muslim community and leaders on the issues.

Listen to the full interview on Sabahul Muslim with Ml. Sulaimaan Ravat and his guests, Airports Company of South Africa’s Group Executive: Enterprise Security and Compliance, General Mzwandile Petros and Jabulani Khambule, Regional General Manager for ACSA.

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