South Africa, Customs
As we approached South Africa’s border post (Onverwacht), we reminisced with a deep sadness about all the wonderful people we have met and the places we have seen. Our feelings of melancholy quickly faded when we found that we had overstayed our visa by 62 days, resulting us being banned from the country of South Africa for FIVE years, and would result in us being arrested (and held until we would be deported) if the customs officials of Swaziland didn’t accept us into their country! Our mistake was assuming (a big mistake) that a country without a required visa, allowed re-entry after the 90 allowed period. This isn’t the case with South Africa (as it has been with nearly every other country we had visited..in South America). This is Africa you know!
We stamped into Cape Town on March 26th (2014) and entered the country. When it came close to our visa expiration date, 90 days later, we decided to go into the country of Lesotho, this was 11 days prior to our initial South African visa expiration. We stayed in Lesotho for about two weeks and upon entering we made sure with customs (and just about every other country we have traveled to) that we had another 90 days to spend in South Africa, the customs official confirmed, “Yes, you guys have 90 days from today’s stamp.”
About a month later, we decided to climb the Sani Pass (below), entering Lesotho a second time. Again, we get stamped out of South Africa, stamped into Lesotho, and the stamped back into South Africa, while getting confirmation that we had 90 days in South Africa.
Now we reach the South African / Swaziland border, the man and lady tell us that we are ‘undesirables’, an odd term which is defined as a person that has overstayed the time allotted in South Africa. The lady asked why we entered Lesotho and why we were traveling by bicycle.
Erek: “We cycled a few hundred miles in order to enter Lesotho for two reasons, 1) so we can experience the country and its people, and 2) so we can abide by the ‘law’ by resetting our visa for South Africa, which was confirmed not just by one customs official, but by two!”
Customs Lady: “Well that looks suspicious, that you entered Lesotho in order to reset your visa. The system must have been down and it doesn’t show you entering the country! Plus, I think the second stamp would only allow you to have an additional sixty days.”
Us: “We have done this on multiple occasions in Chile and Argentina (and were welcome to in other countries as well), they didn’t find it suspicious! Look at the stamps in the book. They show that we have entered Lesotho twice! Plus, if we did have another 60 days, like you just said, than there shouldn’t be an issue at all because 60 days have not yet passed since that date!”
About an hour later:
Customs Lady: “Well maybe you would have gotten another seven days after the first stamp, not 60. On top of that, the problem now is that they (customs officials) did not write 90 days on either of the two stamps.”
Us: “Surely it can’t be our fault that they didn’t write the date? They both confirmed that we had 90 days after each entrance stamp!”
This date issue on the stamp is true. On the two stamps in our passport, there is no date of expiration (90 days) like the original stamp had. She stuck with this reasoning which we were unable to defend. As a result, and due to time constraints, we signed a document, (which we read very carefully by the way), saying that we had overstayed our visa by 62 days, thereby confirming our five year ban as an ‘undesirable’ in South Africa! We didn’t have immediate plans on returning within five years but our route has now forced us to go through the more dangerous country of Mozambique, as opposed to entering north through Swaziland and into either Zimbabwe or Botswana. In other words, our options were limited, possibly, to a more dangerous route.
And if that was bad, this is worse. I go to get something off of my bike while the lady calls Candice over to her:
Customs Lady: “Swaziland will see that you are an undesirable in our country when they swipe you in electronically and may not accept the two of you in their country, if this happens we will arrest you two and hold you until we can deport you back to your country!”
I see Candice’s face and automatically know that there was an interesting twist to our issue! Candice told me the news and so we head over to the Swaziland customs post.
Erek: “Just smile and give some small talk, don’t even mention this issue unless asked!”
The customs official never swiped our passports, but instead stamps us into the country, but guess what he didn’t do?: “write a date on the stamp!” We confirmed with him to see that our stay was 30 days, and that was that.”
As much as we tried defending our position, there was no getting by the stamp with the date on it. I could have written the date in myself and we would most likely have gotten away with it, but the truth of the matter is, we weren’t expecting any trouble at all and didn’t even know about this date issue! We are law abiding citizens and we take pride in the manner with which we conduct ourselves, and the country we represent. It is a shame this happened, because the people we have met are absolutely wonderful in South Africa.
Finally, a friend of ours, who had cycled for ten years in Africa, had spent some time in an African prison due to him overstaying a visa. So…. if you are planning on visiting a country (especially in Africa), my advice is to spend a bit more time mulling over the details about entry and exit requirements, Corrupt Officials will be looking at any and every detail of your passport so they can get a bribe out of you (see Corruption in Mozambique)! Because we have been traveling for a length of time, it was easy to become comfortable and lax in areas that demanded our attention, much in the way our friend had.