Scott Hanselman

South Africa 2008 – My Passport is Full

December 09, 2008 Comment on this post [81] Posted in Africa
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My passport is nearly out of pages, and that nearly kept me from entering South Africa this weekend. South Africa has a strict rule that your passport not only expire more than 3 months in the future (which is common) but also that it have at least TWO full blank pages left.

The Situation

I knew this, but didn't worry about it because I have exactly two pages (23 and 24) left. However, when we arrived in Johannesburg Airport and started going through passport control, the young lady at the desk announced:

"Your Passport is full."

"Ah, well, it has two free pages at the back."

"NO. It's full. Those pages are for amendments, not Visas."

"Really? I didn't realize that. I'm not sure I know what an amendment is. Can we just use those and I'll promise to get more pages when I get back home?"


"Well, what can be done? Is there someone I can talk to?"

"What are you saying exactly?"

"I'm wondering if there's someone who might be able to help out with this problem."

"Are you implying I don't know how to do my job?"

"Um, no, not at all, I'm just trying to understand what the next steps are."

At this point, I'm literally stunned. The anger and negative vibe I'm getting here is really greater than ANYTHING I've ever felt before. We've had stones thrown at us by hooligans and had years of stares and negativity, but I'm really sensing that this lady HATES me, and I'm only a few sentences into our interaction here.

Then a older white guy comes over (the angry passport person was a very young Black lady) and asks what's up. It's clear that he's a peer from a job perspective. NOT a boss. In fact, there doesn't appear to be a boss anywhere to be seen. I'm used to some kind of passport overseer around.

Anyway, this guys says, "No, no, there's a new rule - there was a memo - that it's now OK to use the Amendments page on American Passports." This new rule is apparently a few months old.

I've been silent since my last sentence...but now the older guy and the young lady are starting to get into it, in front of me. He's saying that he'll take the responsibility/fall and sign whatever to get me my visa. She's saying no way. Then he snatches my passport from her and walks away sharper, declaring "...and now I have to do YOUR job."

The young lady is now mumbling under her breath in isiZulu about what an asshole both this guy and I am. But she's continuing to process the family's passport. A VERY long ten minutes pass and Older Guy comes over all apologies and light, saying he's sorry for the confusion and the trouble. He leaves.

The Young Lady gives us our passports and I say "Siyabonga sibili sisi..." She starts a little, but there's still steam coming out of her ears. But, we're through.

The Analysis

My wife is pretty steamed at this point, but not with Young Lady, instead with me. She feels I handled a very African situation in a very American way. Rather than being instantly and extremely submissive to the Person in Power, I was logical, and implied that perhaps a supervisor could break the impasse.

My brother in law feels that Americans in a service capacity (like a Passport Control Officer) typically don't want responsibility, preferring instead to defer to a supervisor who would ultimately take any heat from a decision. Africans, on the other hand, will assert any and all power that they have, almost a societal game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. A bus driver may be a "societal nobody" but he's still King of the Bus and he can kick Hobos and Presidents alike off the bus. This woman, for whatever reason, was asserting her Power, and when I didn't back down and say something like "Oh, my, I'm so sorry, I had no idea...can you help me?" I had already lost.

This interaction put a REALLY bad taste in my mouth, as it was an interaction that totally didn't go the way my mental script had laid it out.

As much as people are the same, cultures are VERY different. Now I realize that this Young Lady might have just broken up with her boyfriend or been oppressed by Whites her whole life. Or, maybe she just had a bad day and I got caught in the middle. I'll never know, but I do know that I was a biscuit away from being turned around (or calling the US Embassy) and came dangerously close to a ruined trip.

What's the moral of the story? I've travelled all over, and I think I'm pretty thoughtful, knowledgeable and even charming. This usually works great for me (has for 35 years) in interaction with folks. However, even after more than a half-dozen trips to various African countries, I'm reminded that I don't know much at all. I'm not quite sure what I could have done to make this interaction more successful, short of living in South Africa for more than a month at a time.

What do YOU think, Dear Reader? How do things work in your country between People with Power and People without? This might be as simple as an interaction between a customer and a waiter, or a loan officer, or a customs agent.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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December 09, 2008 15:20
There ya go Scott. Conformity FTW :)
December 09, 2008 15:22

Nice story, even though you almost had to sleep in the sofa :) Your blog and podcasts and all the rest are allways interesting.

I'm from Brazil (I'm living in Paris now) and I'd say that you would have almost the same problem there. You would have found a supervisor of sorts, but you would be very disrespectful to the clerk. I'm Brazil it's part of being polite to ask for the person's help first, and ask for a superior just when everything goes wrong. In many cases the clerk will call the supervisor himself and see what can be done, as long as you've being nice and didn't jump the hierarchy. We are all (at least most of us) very nice to people and we like to help out, you just need to be nice, not subservient.

And no, we didn't have anything like the apartheid in recent years, and even though the damn racism is still around, acting in the way I've suggested this has much more to do with being polite and respectful than anything else.

Keep up the good work, have a nice trip in Africa, I hope to go there some day.


P.S.: It just began to snow here in Paris

December 09, 2008 15:28
You're lucky that you've never entered the USA as a foreigner, even a white Anglo-saxon one. I'll concede that they've improved a lot in the last few years, but the rudest 'public service' officials I've ever met anywhere have been USA passport checkers and their supervisors.
December 09, 2008 15:30
In situations like that I prefer a charming and hapless "Oh my, what do we do about this?". For my (german) ears "Well, what can be done? Is there someone I can talk to?" sounds slightly offensive too. I try to stick with the person I have in front of me and try to make them understand that I'm willing to help them to resolve the situation. Only if the person keeps on saying that they can not do anything about it I will ask who else to turn too. It usually works. But sometimes people are determined to mess with you, so maybe in this specific incident it wouldn't have mattered what you said.
December 09, 2008 15:34

This is the norm here in RSA, whenever we have to go renew licenses or id documents 80% the time you will encounter this type of situation. I tend to ask for management to help, but that also does not work out.

When you leave from such a situation I feel that their are not competent people in place to provide the type of service where people will try to go that extra mile to help.

I think it is an attitude problem where the current situation in South Africa, and maybe in the rest of Africa, that the African Black person does not want to be "ordered" by the White man. I try always to help, like this one time when a waiter added the wrong item on our bill, with a helping attitude I wanted to help her see her mistake, but she did not want anything of that.

Hopefully one day here in RSA or even the world everyone won't feel threaten by each other. World Peace! :P

December 09, 2008 15:35
Oh Well, all is well that ends well. Thankfully yours plans were not jeopardized.

Just FYI, US Immigration is no different for foreigners. They are extremely rude and may have deported if one is not submissive enough!
December 09, 2008 15:38
Probably after an 16+ hours flight with the whole family its impossible to react in an approriate manner. You have to be a trained diplomat to find the right wording and facial impression. You approach to solve the situation was obviously completely inapproriate.;)

I really enyoy reading your blogs.

December 09, 2008 15:42
I think the woman made her position clear immediately. You saw immediately that she was going to be difficult and tried to fix the situation in the only way possible - by suggesting that she let you seek assistance elsewhere. She immediately confirmed that she was just looking for an argument.

Unfortunately, "little hitlers" as we tend to call them are at their most annoying when you come across them in a place where you are in a weak position. Airports are places where you can't take a different route, decide to come back another day, or get into a heated argument - not unless you enjoy a beating and a full cavity search.

December 09, 2008 15:44
Given that she works in passport control, I think the onus is on her to be culturally sensitive - not you.
December 09, 2008 15:45
Oh, the same situation you can face in Russia. People who have power are bosses in their buses, right.

Usually you have two ways:
1) "May I talk to your boss, or how can I have the visa?". It should be done before any formal conflict, because if there is a conflict already, it is hard for the person to just say "OK, OK, I'll do it". You know, honor and all this stuff. But usually these people don't want to be wrong in face of their bosses, so it they can do it, they (or their bosses) probably will do it after some "explanations" and "negotiations". I mean, they can explain you how bad you are, how it is important, etc... And in the end they say "... but OK, next time do not ...." - and the problem is solved :)
Again, if there was no conflict between you :) Especially in Russia :)

2) "Oh, super-puper person, you are the only who can save me". Some psychological game, but if you can make this person please you, if you can play by his/her rules, you could win :)

It is very, very depends on the person you have problem with...
December 09, 2008 15:46
All I can say is "Welcome to SA". People all over the country here are like that, they don't *really* want to help you, but by calling their boss you're accusing them of not doing their job. People is departments and companies all over SA are like this and being a citizen here you get used to it.

You handled it perfectly otherwise you would've been there for hours!
December 09, 2008 15:50
Hi Scott: When I read this I actually got angry since 2010 is around the corner, RSA must treat visitors with respect, help etc else it gives a really bad image - it doesn't help this country change the structure by building new roads etc for 2010 soccer but the attitude of people doesn't change.

I would say its really bad service.... nobody is willing to help anymore, client service / customer care is out the window.... it makes a person angry to see that its bad but it also make you sad since you don't want to hear bad things about your country even if its true.

Fact: RSA must change!! Customer service etc must become important again else its a waste.
December 09, 2008 16:12
lol, don't worry, CT passport officials are much more friendlier...and besides, this lady/girl she was offended by the way you approached her, if she were older than you, she would have given you a slapping. Motherly slapping...
December 09, 2008 16:14
Same stuff here in Romania.

One piece of advice - I don't know whether it works in South Africa, but in Romania still does: you get the visa (or simply benevolence from the guy in power) with a $25 bill shoved into the pocked of the clerk (amount or currency may vary).

Just make sure to prepare the money in advance, not to let other people see you looking into your wallet in front of a clerk. This is just to save face, because everyone would understand very well and tacitly accept what you are doing.

Merry travel!
December 09, 2008 16:31
Where do you get your tickets? You have any tricks? I have a friend here in the States desperately trying to visit her husband in South Africa.
December 09, 2008 16:38
Entering USA as a foreigner is almost the same thing as you've described in your blog post.
December 09, 2008 16:58
I was about to describe how things are in South America but Rafael did a good job at it already (in summary: similar to SA). Here in Norway, OTOH, people tend to be very, very considerate, including the passport control people. They might give you some hard time if you don't have something in order, but not with the sole intention of messing up with you.

The only problem I had while moving to Norway was the habit they have of making this "ah!" sound which for them means "alright", while in most countries it means "there's a problem here". So the first time I entered the country, on my first international travel ever, fresh out of school and pretty much broke, I almost had a heart attack when the woman opened my totally blank Brazilian passport and said "ah!!".

Now when I get back to Brazil it really annoys me the way that people with any kind of power whatsoever act as if they were kings.
December 09, 2008 17:00
Haha no one gets through Joburg Airport unscathed - no one!

My first impression of that hell hole - waiting for 3 hours for my luggage... not so much in a line but rather a large squirming heap of people... knocking my head on the floor in the shuttle bus as the driver treated our transfer as his own private rally race - an Afrikaner lifted me up with the words "Welcome to South AFrica - not for the faint of heart"!

Luckily the rest of SA is brilliant if you want it to be - just remind yourself - you're not in Kansas anymore!
December 09, 2008 17:01
I think the best bet is to have ensure that your travel documents have more 'space' than requirements. That way you are then not assuming any cultural difference can come in to play. The situation would never need to arise and you, your wife and the passport people can do their business without the need for anyone to get angry or misunderstand 'ones own perspective'.
December 09, 2008 17:11
Ah cmon Scott, everyone knows Johannesburg is scumsville.. lucky to come back with your life from that place, it really is hell on earth.
December 09, 2008 17:17
It's not very different here in India from what you've experienced. But again, it's not with everyone, just a few not-so-good people who do similar to what that young lady did to you. They think they're doing you a favor, not their job. Somebody has to tell them how they get their paychecks.

But then again, like the gentleman in your story, we have many good people too :)
December 09, 2008 17:19
I think it is a bit unfair on how many people seem to be taking this as a white vs black encounter. Scott can probably tell better, but was the girl being difficult because of his method of approaching the issue, or because he was a white man? From the part where he talks about his wife's reaction, it seems to be because of the former.

Yes, given that she is working checking passport's at the airport, she probably should have been more sensitive to the fact that people from different cultures behave differently - but it is different to get out of ingrained behavior.

I have always (in my own country and elsewhere) found problems get solved more easily by smiling at the person, and asking what it is I can do to solve the issue. Unless the other person is having a very bad day and not at all inclined to be helpful, this works, since you are not blaming the other person for anything.

In India, asking to speak to the supervisor without having tried to resolve the issue with the person in front of you, can be interpreted as an accusation of incompetence, and obviously people's reaction would be influenced by this interpretation.
December 09, 2008 17:21

Welcome to the South African way, people here with any kind of power will use it. However, with 2010 and the Confedaration Cup coming, the attitude should change. However, I doupt it. You will find this attidute rampant from passport control to the MacDonald cachier. Never the less you did what needed to be done, having lived here for 20 years I do it too.

Enjoy your trip and thanks for a fantastic presentation last night.
December 09, 2008 18:02
The whole "may I talk to your supervisor" routine is perceived as derogatory, at least where I come from (I realise that it's kosher in the US).
December 09, 2008 18:09
Scott, since no one else has asked yet: What does "Siyabonga sibili sisi" mean? I'm assuming something along the lines of a polite "thank you very much", but a Google search didn't help, and I can't find the "isiZulu to English" option in the dropdown on Babelfish...
December 09, 2008 18:14
Hi Scott,

This was a typical situation of showing who is in control. The lady had the power to refuse you and she did. I have seen this happening a lot. This is not really a racial issue but power issue. In my community I have seen people forcing other people to do stuff even though their title is very lame and stupid.

Few years back when I was a student I was about to miss a bus to school. So, I ran full speed towards the bus and made it to the bus. The bus driver was a black lady. As soon as I swiped my card and walked to sit in the seat the driver asked me "Did you say anything?". I said NO. And then she said "Don't you have to say thanks to me". I was shocked and thinking WTF. Thanks for what???

Well in the end I had to say thanks or I am pretty sure I was kicked out of the bus for no reason. This shows she was in control of the bus. I can be freaking Neil Diamond but still she is the queen of the bus.

Also people will less power will use the power more often then people will more power.
December 09, 2008 18:17
You should not make excuses when you are treated poorly. She may have just broken up with her boyfriend or been oppressed her whole life....or she may be a jerk. Whatever the case may be, that does not entitle her in any way. You were respectful and patient with her. Now you want to blame yourself and second guess your actions? Please stop.
December 09, 2008 18:19

i think your response was nerdeque "take me to your leader". when i look at what you said, you were the very soul of discretion and politeness "Well, what can be done? Is there someone I can talk to?". in Uganda that would have been perceived as a preamble to a bribe.
i don't get why the missus was mad at you though. on the other hand, there were undertones of dis. it is all in the unsaid words man. like for example "Well, what can be done? Is there someone I can talk to?" could end, "cause i am getting no where with the idot i am talking to now!!"
welcome to africa
December 09, 2008 18:21
Like Rafael, I'm also from Brazil.
I'd like to add, as curious as it may be, that the worst attitude I have ever faced there came from the Brazilians that work in the US Consulate, handling visitors visas for people trying to come and spend their money in the US.
In the US, the only time I see this type of behavior is when I need anything from the Dept. of Motor Vehicles in IL. They must hate their jobs.
December 09, 2008 18:28
I'm (partially) with @Will Dean on this. I've been in and out of a fair few countries (20+, not including the EU), and the US INS folks are the MOST useless ones - at least at LAX. Denver and Philly were better, but still... they seem to be more concerned with my photo and fingerprints than anything else.

Compare that with Canada, who wanted to know where we were staying, what we were doing etc. Much more relevant to coming over a border.

I guess it depends on your tone at the time - most people are stressed when they come thru immigration, but few immigration officers seem to work WITH that - they just get all suspicious etc which makes it worse. I guess, given what they are dealing with, thats fair enough.

Maybe asking "ok, so you can't do it now, and there is a big queue behind me. Do you know if I have to now get on a plane, or call the US embassy, or....?" might have defused it. But like most cultural things, it depends on the countries and people involved..

That said - it is you job to make sure your papers are in order. :) You don't have a right to come into their country (any country).....
December 09, 2008 18:35
Scott, for a moment I thought you were quoting from Donald Gause's and Gerald Weinberg's 1982 classic on problem solving, "Are Your Lights On", chapters 14 & 15.

If you don't have it, it is available on Amazon and I know you will enjoy it.

Are Your Lights On

December 09, 2008 18:37
It's called being humble Scott and an acknowledgement that your in a different country. I think it's the same for most people that travel abroad in that they bring their culture with them. Generally if you are humble and apologetic, you won't experience any negative vibe in any country. You got what you deserved even though your intentions may have been different than the way they came across.
December 09, 2008 18:38
Airports in the US are like hell. The thing is this the most powerful country on earth, so add the arrogance to it.
December 09, 2008 18:55
I'm sorry for your trouble there, but the laugh was about the way you described it, the "Rock, Paper, Scissors game" thing, that's exactly what is going on here in Iran.

With a huge difference: here the majority of people usually treat strangers (I mean people from other, especially western, countries) nicer than they treat their fellow Iranians!
December 09, 2008 19:41
I strongly disagree that you were wrong to ask for a manager or to even be shocked in this situation. We simply cannot go around making excuses for other people in these cases simply because of a cultural difference. When someone is put in a position of government work especially at an airport they are JUST AS MUCH responsible to understand culture differences of their travelers as you are. Think about it, this is her job; hundreds of others just like you will pass through her JOB, something she gets paid to do. She either has to learn to work with others just like we all should or she should be fired.

There are definitely cultural differences in this world, but they have little place in a professional setting. The expectations for understanding should always be equally attempted for on both sides.

Glad you made it through! :)
December 09, 2008 20:08
Not wanting to be an enabler, I would just like to say that none of this would've happened if you had taken care of your passport before embarking on this trip.


Personally, I would've done the same thing you did. I have little patience for people in that kind of role that can't offer solutions when they are the one to recognize a problem - she should've immediately either given you options she was cognizant of and/or offered to check with a colleague in case there was something she was overlooking (like a memo she apparently forgot about or didn't see).

December 09, 2008 20:21
I think the problem would be more due to the tone (or perceived attitude) when Scott said "Well, what can be done? Is there someone I can talk to?". The 'person in power' decided Scott didnt understand that he was in a 'serious' problem and should show concern, worry etc. The "American attitude" that "I am well with my rights to get this thing done" should be replaced with "Please help. I need this favour" attitude !!
December 09, 2008 20:33
Don't feel bad, Scott. I think it's a rule that Passport checkers worldwide must be card-carrying douchebags.

When my wife and I entered India for a cousin's wedding, the passport checker said we didn't look like our pictures. He told us it looks like we'd gained weight in the last 3 years but even then it was a stretch. These are pictures that are OBVIOUSLY us. It was clear that he was trying to provoke me and my wife. We were fuming but didn't make a scene so we could just get the hell outta there.
December 09, 2008 20:44
Thanks for posting this Scott, it brought back a lot of memories of getting my temporary residence permit in RSA. Travel enough and you will run in to a few bad apples. I'm sure that you have had plenty of people who went above and beyond to help you out too. Fortunately the good experiences are the ones that stick with you.

Where do you get your tickets?

No silver bullet yet, but we've found Best Travel Store to be consistently lower than everyone else on flights to Johannesburg. A little more work processing the ticket, but not much.
December 09, 2008 21:22
So, you're a jerk for acting like an American? Um, you are an American. You weren't ugly, it was a cultural difference.
December 09, 2008 21:28
I wouldn't worry about it too much. Remember, cultural sensitivity goes both ways. You could make the case that she was being culturally insensitive by assuming that your intentions anything other than honorable. Americans are not the only ones that can be culturally insensitive. Besides, it would be impossible to understand the culture of every place that you go in the world. You would have to spend month researching, and in the end you would probably still not be quite there. I think the best we can do is try not to step on others toes, and when we do happen to do that have the humility to say sorry. I think this post shows that you indeed are sensitive to the culture there otherwise you would have just dismissed her position out of hand. This conversation shows that indeed you do care.
December 09, 2008 22:07
Now I realize that this Young Lady might ... been oppressed by Whites her whole life.

South Africa has been a proper democracy for more than 10 years now, so there's no chance of that.
December 09, 2008 22:08
HA! try being "southamerican" and coming into the US

been there, done *that* many times, all of them at the US border
December 09, 2008 22:35
I don't see it as a complex issue, Scott. You're an American. You're going to act like one, for good or ill. As the compassionate guy I think you are (so I gather from your blog), I can't see you being angry at your wife for acting like an African instead of an American, right? Yes, she's an American (I hate the whole hyphen thing) but you grew up in different cultures, did you not? differences are going to exist and that's not a bad thing.

But you can't make a lion a vegetarian any more than you can stop an American being one or acting like one. :)
December 09, 2008 22:48
It could be wiser to ask her for help first. The reason -- it's safer to try to solve the problem with the original officer, and only if it fails -- come to the boss. Boss may or may not help, but if you solve the problem with the original officer -- you don't really care if the officer's boss would help you.

On the other hand -- if you cannot make progress with the original officer -- the next step is to talk to her boss.

BTW, why go to Africa at all? Problems on the borders are really minor in comparison with what potentially could happen with you in poor country.
Isn't it safer to stay home and use internet/telephone to communicate with people you like?
December 09, 2008 23:23
The one thing I have noticed in the past 5 years since going to SA is that the customer service gets worse and worse each time I go. 5 years ago everyone was so polite, now it's a mission to get them to talk to you in English. Fortunately my wife still has her SA Passport, we go through that line, and if they give us sh1t, we start talking in Afrikaans and ask for a supervisor, fortunately, we haven't had to do that yet.
December 10, 2008 0:50
+1 for entering the US as a foreigner, we get the same (if not worse treatment).
December 10, 2008 1:12
When you asked "Well, what can be done? Is there someone I can talk to?" I probably would have stopped at "Well, what can be done?" or "Can you help me?" first, waited for the answer, and then asked the second question if she said nothing can be done - no matter what the culture. I can't see how your wife would fault you for that approach.

I'm not saying what you did was wrong, but in general it seems a good strategy to make sure the person you're talking with has explicitly closed all doors before going over their head.
December 10, 2008 1:45
It looked like you may have to go to a superior but you really didn't give her a chance to do her job. You put forward a suggestion, she said no. The way I read it at this point you have not given her much of an oppurtunity to make her own suggestions, statements; she has only had a chance to answer your questions. Just asking her "what can be done" would have provided her with this oppurtunity.
December 10, 2008 2:01

Based on your description, I don't think you did or said anything wrong. The problem seems to have come in between these two quotes:

"I'm wondering if there's someone who might be able to help out with this problem."

"Are you implying I don't know how to do my job?"

It's not clear to me how the passport lady could have thought you were implying she didn't know how to do her job. Perhaps it comes down to her understanding of the word "someone". Nothing you said seems to imply that you thought a supervisor has to intervene.

I have heard enough stories of people's lives being screwed because of issues they had at international border crossing. One moral of this story is to always read up on passport/visa rules and regulations of countries you are about to enter. I go as far as to print out a copy and bring it with me on my trips. In case of a problem at passport control, I have proof that I am following the rules as I understand them. BTW, many countries have a rule that your passport has to expire more than SIX months in the future.

Enjoy the rest of your trip and your brother-in-law's wedding :-)!!

December 10, 2008 2:08
Personally it annoys me that the person I interact with at the bank, passport control, market etc, doesn't have any responsibility and doesn't now much about the job they are performing, so instead of learning how to do their job properly and responsibly, they need to have a supervisor to constantly overlook and sign whatever they do (if you dont trust your employess in the bank, why hire them in the first place?).
It must also be very unrewarding to have a job like that, where you never really get to be much more than a monkey robot.
December 10, 2008 2:19
I would of totally been like
December 10, 2008 2:35
It is always important to remember the culture of the area you are going to. I would recommend updating the passport :p, rhars all.
December 10, 2008 2:42
I don't think is a culture issue, it happens everywhere
"..maybe she just had a bad day and I got caught in the middle.."
I think that's the reason she acts rude, sometimes someone that deals with people all day gets really tired of the problems of others or they just tired to explain the rules over an over... but I don't think that's your fault. Nothing justify her to be rude
December 10, 2008 2:46
I think you handled the situation perfectly well. I would have done the same thing. There was confusion about a rule, you had already been denied help by the lady:

"...Can we just use those and I'll promise to get more pages when I get back home?"

So I don't see how asking for her help further would have achieved anything. You wanted to see if a supervisor could help with a special case. Perhaps culturally it is a different way to approach the problem but approach aside your request was a perfectly valid one. I immigrated from England nine years ago and I've had a mixture of treatment and experiences from all sides. I think personally that being a customs official is a sucky, stressful job and that the people working in those positions just get burned out and become mean. I'm sure that the racial tension in the country doesn't help at all, but more than likely she has been yelled at for doing her job wrong a million times over and is spitefully becoming a stickler for the rules in any case possible; even when she has the rules wrong. I'm sure that her associate who helped you has given her grief in the past given his comments and affrontive handling of the situation, which probably only served to worsen it all.

At least things worked out and you didn't end up getting turned around. It's easy to be spiteful yourself in those situations, a la "This is why I don't visit your <insert favorite word here> country.", but you kept your calm and even reported here in a very subjective way.

I've been yelled at, pressured, and messed around at passport control a couple of times and found the entire thing to be a big game of who can intimidate who. If I show up a little unshaven in my jeans and a t-shirt to US customs I seem to get a medium amount of hassle and questions. If I show up in an Oscar de la Renta, smart shoes, carrying a laptop and looking busy, I more often than not get ushered through with a "Have a superb day, sir, <grovel><grovel>" because apparently I look and come across more like someone who is connected and might have your job if you give me grief. It's a game.

Good manners, a calm head, and a willingness to explain your situation to n different people seems to statistically have the highest success rate. Sorry your actions were taken as anything other than just trying to solve a problem in this case.
December 10, 2008 5:00
Maybe she thought you want to illegaly stay in rsa b/c of financial crunch in the US?
December 10, 2008 5:14
Sounds remarkably like US customs (esp LAX). Every time I've been through LAX I've treated like a criminal who's trying to sneak in to steal US jobs (I'm only visiting for a holiday or conference)! Now I just go elsewhere, it's really not worth the bother.
December 10, 2008 6:15
Joburg Airport is a hell hole, but then again most airports in the world are!

I can totally understand you getting hot and bothered under the collar. But it's best to keep your cool because the last thing you want is to be deported over two pages in your passport.
December 10, 2008 6:28
Recently, when my husband & I were travelling back to USA from Spain (TechEd EMEA), we had a similar experience. It was nothing but a surprise when we were not allowed to board the flight and the reason being that we did not have a UK transit visa even though our final destination is USA (Seattle) and we were only changing gates at LHR. Apparently this rule is applicable only to non-US citizens.

We over-confidently argued like lawyers stating specific clauses, immigration laws & demanded that they let us board the flight. That should have confused a heck out of them & they had to call the UK embassy (at least they pretended to!). In a couple of minutes, we were on the flight, all set & relaxed.

IMO, sometimes being submissive might land you in unnecessary trouble ;-)
December 10, 2008 7:45
Your query really revolves around power distance rankings:

South Africa should not have been a problem.
December 10, 2008 8:56
Have you ever been through US immigration with a non-US passport? No? I have been, many times. They're a bunch of rude power abusers nowhere near as calm and pleasant as the young lady you have described... :)
December 10, 2008 9:20
Hey Scott, I attened an event in Auckland (NZ) recently at which you spoke.

You're a funny guy, so although I realise yours was quite a serious situation - if you can find the heart to see a bit of a humorous side ... it does kinda remind me of a certain episode of Seinfeld ... ;-)

IMHO, it's not a 'country' thing, it's a people thing. I think this Seinfeld episode is a play on the fact that you get people behaving that way everywhere - even in soup kitchens.

Bernard (NZ).
December 10, 2008 11:18
I don't think it has anything to do with cultural differnces. By definition when traveling you will encounter cultural differnces. Even when travelling inside the US! (Think rural vs urban areas...)

I guess you just didnt prepare your trip very well.

Frank (NL)
December 10, 2008 11:20
perhaps if you had said you are the Scott she may have understood then
December 10, 2008 11:49
Hi Scott,
I guess it is true for all courties which are under some sort of colonization in the past. Even that includes the tiny country named Bangladesh where i am from. We never mess with people with power. They think they are the boss and they should be respected at any cost.

Although, i am not sure but i have a feeling that the US immgration officers are never kind to me when i travel to US so i am always kinda afraid to ask any questions at all.

Could it be some sort of racial or even religious issue that comes to play during this kind of scenario ? What you say ?
December 10, 2008 12:23
I have someone like this at work (and personally I really like the 'little hitlers' name :D) - unfortunately he's the senior project manager for my project and seems to find it his responsability to make my job as painful as possible.

Then the other week he resorted (once again) to harassment and alienation - thanks to that he now has a lot of higher powers questioning his actions and he seems to be running with his tail between his legs.

Scott, I think you did the right thing - just because people are in a position of power it doesn't mean they can abuse it. This extends further when a person is working in a role where they need to be aware of different cultures. While your wife seems to think that your at fault for not understanding the African way of doing things they customs officer is at fault for not understanding international visitors may not be aware of this..
December 10, 2008 15:41
Here in the UK we call this person a "Jobsworth", as in "It's more than my job's worth to let you do that!". Someone in a position of power will *always* attempt to exercise that power over you, however menial their position really is.

I have found that the be the case in most countries I've been to *except* the US, where it seems people are happy to defer to their supervisor for the slightest little thing. Just my personal experience.

Oh, and to ppl talking about problems entering the US, I noticed a *huge* difference once I got my Green Card - as a tourist or business traveler I got no respect, but once I was a "resident alien" (nanoo-nanoo!), the passport officer would nearly always smile and say something like "welcome home" on entry - which was really nice :)

Finally, according to , "Siyabonga sibili sisi" means something like "Thank you for the truth (or facts?), sister" (although I know nothing about isiZulu grammar or word order, so I might be quite wrong!).
December 10, 2008 19:52
You should have tried out the following line... "Well maybe my friend Abraham Lincoln can solve this little problem" and then bribed her with a Fiver USD!
December 11, 2008 0:20
In response to the earlier question about the meaning of "Siyabonga sibili sisi" - I'm a little rusty, but it basically means "Thank you sister". Siyabonga meaning "we thank you", and sisi meaning "sister" - not too sure on sibili though (possibly a different dialect perhaps, or just my dodgy memory). I'm from Kwa-Zulu Natal, now living in New Zealand.

If she was indeed a very young woman (e.g. <25) then I cringe when I hear people bring up the race card. I'm nearly 30, and I've grown up and gone through my entire school career with black friends. Obviously there are those who will display racist tendencies, but this is just as likely to happen in the US or Europe, its not a South African specific problem (as I'm sure you'll be well aware of). The problem is the rampant sense of entitlement that those in power seem only too eager to fuel.

I think you handled it just fine. People in those positions need to leave their personal problems at the door (just like anyone working with the public), and keep in mind the fact that they're going to interact with people of different cultures who, more importantly, have likely just spent many hours in a flying sardine tin.
December 11, 2008 4:57
It would have been the same thing in Ivory-Coast where I was born and raised. You can never speak up above your elders or even if they are not older, you kind of have to play the "I-am-sorry-i-didnt-know-please-help-me" dumb facade. Hope your trip gets better though :)
December 11, 2008 8:47
Sigh, I've had my stand up arguments with SA passport control, incoming and outgoing and without exception I always lose my rag. I psych myself up beforehand , I try to mentally prepare for being submissive and accepting that the young lady is "only doing her job" but after 6 very unpleasant experiences I can say that SA passport control is the rudest in the world and Australian customs is the friendliest I have come across and the most courteous. It's virtually impossible not to react to their rudeness and illogical manner.

It stems from the fact that the Home Affairs department who administer this area is one of the most inept , chronically underfunded and mismanaged in SA. With the odd exception , getting one's fingernails removed with pliers is preferable to interacting with a Home Affairs employee. By Far.

I apologise on behalf of my erstwhile country and I hope it didn't leave a permanently bad taste - Home Affairs rude and sullen attitude should not be taken as representative of the people.
December 11, 2008 9:10
Sigh, I've had my stand up arguments with SA passport control, incoming and outgoing and without exception I always lose my rag. I psych myself up beforehand , I try to mentally prepare for being submissive and accepting that the young lady is "only doing her job" but after 6 very unpleasant experiences I can say that SA passport control is the rudest in the world and Australian customs is the friendliest I have come across and the most courteous. It's virtually impossible not to react to their rudeness and illogical manner.

It stems from the fact that the Home Affairs department who administer this area is one of the most inept , chronically underfunded and mismanaged in SA. With the odd exception , getting one's fingernails removed with pliers is preferable to interacting with a Home Affairs employee. By Far.

I apologise on behalf of my erstwhile country and I hope it didn't leave a permanently bad taste - Home Affairs rude and sullen attitude should not be taken as representative of the people.
December 11, 2008 23:51
The other way to travel is to know someone up the chain ladder. When I travel a man escorts me out the airport and brings my bags. Oh! this is only when travel back home. Everywhere else just obey! or you could end up in a locker. The color of your passport, the color of your skin, the clothes you wear, makes all the difference as to how much sh__ you get.
December 12, 2008 2:48
If you're near a US consulate or embassy, make an appointment to get the pages added there. They can do it while you wait. In the US it takes weeks.
December 12, 2008 11:33
As a brit [limey brit as Mr R Blyth would say], I would have gone with "Is there anything 'we' can do?" - Helps engage the other side and shows willing to work towards a solution.
December 12, 2008 17:39
Your first problem was trying to apply logic. Customs agents -- and their supervisors -- are trained to apply policy, flush out lies, and prevent threats from crossing into their borders. The policies and procedures they follow are not logical -- they are strongly biased towards security.

A tourist visiting a country thinks, "I'm here, visiting and helping their economy, why aren't these customs people more accomodating?". You mentioned it yourself, the person was in a "service" capacity. WRONG! Customs agents are not in a service capacity -- see above.

At best, these agents attempt to apply government policy to the letter. At worst, customs officers leverage the little (longterm) power they have over you, sometimes just to see you squirm a little. Ultimately, you'll get what you need but you often have to beg to get it.

Morale of the story, be prepared and don't assume "it's no big deal" because they're waiting to make it a big deal... :-)

(years of experience crossing the Canadian border from Detroit to Ontario)
December 12, 2008 21:23
Welcome to South Africa.

As far as interactions with OR Tambo Airport go, that wasn't too bad. At least your luggage wasn't stolen, and you weren't followed from the airport and mugged. Mind you, last time I arrived there I just walked straight through passport control because nobody was there!

December 14, 2008 6:27

I am a regular reader of your blog - normally a fan (and a lurker) - but this is pathetic

Now I realize that this Young Lady might have just broken up with her boyfriend or been oppressed by Whites her whole life.

So the young lady may be a racist but that is an acceptable excuse for incompetence, rudeness etc.... Rationalizing racism is OK as long as her racism is directed at whites? Wow. Obsequiousness has hit a new low and it's insulting to all of us. My momma taught me to treat people respectfully regardless of the color of their skin. Politeness is universal to all cultures. Besides the woman is supposed to be in a position to deal with visitors/foreigners (perhaps of cultures different than her own). I realize you are drowning in white guilt but come up for air once in a while.

December 14, 2008 10:54
Naameka - You're right, certainly. I would add, however, two things. One, I am saying that cutting the young lady a small bit of slack if she'd had a bad day seems reasonable. Two, White Guilt is a powerful thing and can color interactions (pun intended). I think that that just as some Whites tend to dismiss Black racial memory and encourage Blacks to "get over it" (which isn't reasonable) that some Blacks tend to dismiss "white liberal guilt" as also easy to "get over." Both are ingrained.

Ultimately, however, you are right. All I am saying is that being color blind, even when being fairly aware the situation as I consider myself, is a daily challenge.
December 26, 2008 4:00
December 26, 2008 4:07
Hi Scott,
I totaly agree with your conclusion, that you tried to be logical instead of anything else. In Algeria, when facing a situation like this (with a policeman or any agent..) it's better to apologize and to ask that person directly for help ! The key is to let her/him feels that he/she is so important ! If you succeed in doing this, you'll get what you want.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.