In a world turned upside down by COVID 19, the government has callously abandoned South Africans imprisoned in foreign countries.

“We never heard anything from our government,” the sister of a woman incarcerated in Angola said. “The situation is very bad. They go for days without eating. They don’t cook for them; they just give them a slice of bread, maybe once every two days. They only get one cup of dirty water from the tank with mosquito eggs in it and some days they don’t get water. My sister is HIV positive but she is not given medication. Some of them are dying.”

The government’s decision to place 19,000 prisoners on parole to combat the spread of COVID-19 provokes questions: Would the load on Correctional Services be lessened if prisoner transfer agreements were in place? Why is South Africa the only country in the world without prisoner transfer agreements with other countries?

The burden on the taxpayer of the 13 437 foreign nationals incarcerated in South African prisons (July 2019 figures), the majority from Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, is not inconsequential. In 2017, the former Minister of Justice and Correctional Services said it cost South Africa R133, 805 per prisoner per year – R1.6-billion annually for the 12,000 foreign prisoners at the time. 

By comparison, according to DIRCO spokesman, Clayson Monyela, there are currently 764 South Africans in foreign prisons, mostly for drug-related charges. The majority – 343 – are in Brazil.

Foreign inmates in Brazil are given the right to parole but have to remain in the country for the duration of their sentences.  South African woman on parole find themselves on the streets of São Paulo, unable to speak the language, without resources and with nowhere to go.

Many who have served their parole and are free to leave the country are unable to afford a return flight to South Africa. Stranded in Brazil – currently considered the world’s COVID epicentre  –  they are offered no support by the government.  “They have to find their own way back or die on the streets,” founder of the organisation, Locked up in a Foreign Country, Patricia Gerber said.

South Africa is quick to cover the deportation costs of foreigners implicated in criminal activities from Britain, Peru, and other countries, but evades the SADC Prisoner Transfer Protocol and side-steps responsibility for its own people incarcerated abroad.


A flight to South Africa from any country in the world costs less than the R133, 805 per year it costs to keep a foreign national in a South African prison so the government’s recalcitrance doesn’t make economic sense. What is really behind it? And why is the plight of South Africans imprisoned in foreign countries not of concern?

“Most countries, whether they are a democracy or not, have at least attempted to put a prisoner transfer agreement in place,” investigative journalist and author of the book, Dead Cows for Piranhas, Hazel Friedman said.  “It’s not about letting people off the hook, but for the sake of their families who cannot afford to visit them overseas and the sake of rehabilitation back in their home countries. For humane reasons, countries enact prisoner transfer agreements. South Africa’s reluctance in doing so, speaks to me of another agenda.”

As far back as 1996, President Nelson Mandela instructed his government to negotiate prisoner transfer agreements. When Thabo Mbeki assumed the presidency negotiations stopped.

Gerber has lobbied for the right of South African prisoners to serve sentences in their home country for over 15 years. In 2005, she wrote to the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sue van der Merwe requesting an investigation into why South African citizens were not apprehended at the airport in South Africa since the crime of transporting drugs originated on South African soil.  

Her letter was intercepted and it was only eighteen months later, in July 2006, that SAPS National Head of Narcotics and President of Interpol International, Jacki Selebi, was instructed to collect statements from South African prisoners in Mauritius to launch an investigation.  A team led by SA Narcotics Bureau detective Devan Naicker, travelled to Mauritius where they spent four days in a five-star holiday resort and spoke to six detainees without taking a single statement.  Devan Naicker admitted this on a Carte Blanche programme a year later.

In 2010, Selebi was found guilty of corruption and defeating the ends of justice. He had accepted bribes from a renowned drug lord, Glen Agliotti. In the same year, The UN Office on Drugs and Crime named South Africa in as the largest international player in the import and export of drugs.

 “South Africa is a very prominent cog in the larger wheel because of the corruption and the lack of law enforcement. The risks of working from South Africa as a platform are absolutely minimal and you have a huge, vulnerable community who can be exploited“, Dr Marcel van der Watt, from UNISA’s School of Criminal Justice said.

Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport is notorious for enabling large quantities of drugs to be transported in and out of the country. “It has been going on for a very long time and there is frankly no political will and no financial investment given to it … there are compromised officials at every possible corner at ORT and everything happens with absolute impunity”, Van der Watt said.

Female drug traffickers carrying relatively small quantities of drugs are frequently used as unwitting decoys. Known as ‘dead cows’ they are set up to be arrested, while professionals carrying large quantities of drugs move in and out of the country freely. Many of the women decoys fit the definition of trafficking given by the International Organisation on Migration: coercion or trickery, transportation, and exploitation. 

“The majority of our people have been recruited for the very purpose of being arrested. They carry very little and they are manipulated and lied to,” Gerber said.

The only drug trafficking case that has been investigated since 1994 is that of Sheryl Cwele, the former wife of the minister of state security,  and her co-accused Nigerian Frank Nabolisa.  The drug mule recruited by the Cwele, Tessa Beetge, was apprehended at an airport in Brazil with 10kg of cocaine in her luggage.

According to Friedman, the woman who recruited the subject of her 2014 book, is still living in the same house in the same township and still recruiting young women. “Nothing has changed,” she said.

Investigation involves taking statements from couriers who have been convicted in another country or apprehending them before they leave South Africa, she said. “And then it means tracing the supply chain by going one rung up the ladder through the hierarchy until you find, as was the case with Sheryl Cwele, that there is an association with some high-powered business or political figure.”

A cell at Sao Paulo Capital Penitentiary for Women, meant for one person but which houses three. Two people sleep on the floor.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


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