EXCLUSIVE – With no word yet from Saudi haj authorities on South Africa’s request for an additional quota two weeks after Eidul Fitr, the South African Haj and Umrah Council (Sahuc) has opted to call it quits based on their belief that the request is unlikely to be granted. Speaking on VOC’s Sunday Live a day after its AGM held in Durban on Saturday, Sahuc secretary general Shaheen Essop said with time running out fast, it was unlikely that they would be able to make logistical arrangements in time even the added quota was granted at this stage.
“On the additional quota there is nothing new, except sheer disappointment. It is already the 15th of Shawaal and still there is no news. So we have come to a decision from the perspective of the administration of haj to call it quits, because we do not believe we will be granted the concessionary quota at this stage. Even if the added quota was to come through today, the knock on effects are severe and we cannot see how we would be able to put the logistics in place in time,” he related.
Essop said one factor that had deeply concerned the Sahuc and the operators at the AGM was the number of cancellations over the last week, mainly from people who had been accredited, but found that they were no longer financially able perform the pilgrimage this year. “In the last few days we have had up to 50 cancellations. Those spaces have subsequently been passed on and only one or two open spots remain to be confirmed, but this has largely been done and dusted.”
Besides the financial concerns of individual hujjaj who had previously confirmed acceptance of their haj accreditation, Essop said if the concessionary quota would come through in the next day, those remaining in the queue would find it harder to prepare in far less time. “If we look at the report tabled at the AGM yesterday, we saw that we had accredited 2,500 hujjaj, but we had to go through 4,000 hajis to get there. That meant 1,500 people who were accredited had to decline or cancel.”
He continued: “Even if were granted an additional quota for 500 or even 1,000 more, how many would times would it have to roll over to be filled? At this stage we believe it is better to call it quits now, because it would be even more detrimental to be granted an added quota and fail to fill it in time. That would inevitabley be taken into consideration next year and may even be deducted from our already reduced quota.”
Meanwhile, he said, the first hujjaj were due to start leaving between 15 and 30 September with the late departures scheduled for the first week in October. To facilitate this movement, the passports of all 2,500 accredited hujjaj will be sent to the Saudi embassy on Tuesday for the visas to be processed. It should be completed in a week and returned to operators. According to Essop, this is another first in a process that is now overseen by Sahuc. Previously operators forwarded the passports to the embassy on a piecemeal basis, but after last year’s haj visa scandal, a new arrangement had been made.
Quota: silence is an answer
“The Saudis will not necessarily give you a negative answer. They will just give you no answer.” That is the way Sedick Steenkamp, spokesperson for the South African Travel and Haj Operators Association (Sathoa) described the background to the decision taken at the AGM of the haj regulator on Saturday to accept that no addition will be granted to South Africa’s haj quota of 2,500 for this year.
“There are always rumours around the quota, but at this stage there was nothing concrete (on SA’s request) and in the interim, contingency plans have to be put in place,” Steenkamp told VOC’s Sunday Live. According to Shaheen Essop, secretary general of the South African Haj and Umrah Council (Sahuc), they were forced to take the decision because time was running out fast and it would not be logistically possible to administrate haj even if the additional quota was granted at this late stage.
“We have never received word so late on the additional quota. Normally we get news at the latest a few days after Ramadan, but this is very late. From the operator’s perspective, even if the concession came through now, we can always make it work, but we cannot guarantee hujjaj that they would pay the prices we had offered 2 – 3 months ago,” Steenkamp said.
For now operators who had hoped the additional quota would come through and boost their numbers will have to amend their arrangements. “For us the biggest issue is that some of the operators may have overstocked and we will now have to release those seats or accommodation that were reserved or booked, because the hotel owners or airlines are not prepared to wait longer. So if the added quota comes through for instance and we have to make renewed bookings, the price would depend on what is available at the time, in addition to the fact that there is not a lot of time within which for either the hajis or operators to make arrangements,” he explained.
One way in which the 34 operators who had been accredited for this year have coped with the smaller number of SA hujjaj was to form alliances. According to Steenkamp, this has allowed them to pool resources and offer “decent” haj packages in spite of the circumstances. At the same time, the alliances allowed operators to beat the rule of having a minimum of 45 hujjaj. Thus far, only 19 o the 34 operators have been able to secure enough hujjaj to take people for haj this year.
Asked what the reasons were for Saudi haj authorities to delay the announcement or decline additional quotas, Essop said the haj industry could only speculate. “A primary concern is always space on the Masha-ir and at Mina this would always be a problem. Secondly, given the resurgance of Islam in some parts of world, countries like China who have hundreds of thousands of Muslims are only able to bring in 10,000 hujjaj and this must be redressed. Thirdly, on a daily basis buildings are being torn down in Makkah. This, coupled with the delay in the Jabl Umr building in the Shubaika area – for various reasons – has caused a lack of accommodation in Makkah.”
Another factor, Essop said, was the extension of the Haram in the Shamia and Gaza area which meant there was presently not enough space on the mataf outside the Haram. “Furthermore, the Syrian revolution that has been raging over the last 18 months has been cause for major concern over security in the region and it has repercussions for haj. All of this could make quota concessionary requests problematic. However, the base haj quota of all countries has been granted.”
Essop said Sahuc would seek clarity on this year’s quota decision when it meets next with the Saudi haj authorities. “For now we will have to take the haj quota on a year on year basis. We want hujjaj to know that Sahuc did not engineer this situation, but it is a process we need to manage.” Asked if the reduction in SA’s quota which had been whittled down from between 7,000 – 15,000 annually over the last two decades to 2,500 this year, would not open the door for people to seek shortcuts to circumvent the haj quota, Essop said:
“We have already seen this happening. For one, there was an advertisement run in the Sunday Times Extra recently where people offered prospective hujjaj a second passport from a neighbouring country in order to get a haj visa. When we raised this with the Department of Home Affairs, we were told unequivocally that this was illegal. You can only get a passport in a neighbouring country if you have permanent residency there. From our side, we want to assure the public that we have measures in place and if anyone attempts to find such loopholes that could in any way endanger the SA haj quota, we will not hesitate to bring them to book.”
On a related note, with the first SA hujjaj preparing to leave by 15 September, the Sahuc haj mission will be departing on 9 and 13 September. However, this year, in keeping with the smaller SA contingent of hujjaj which is 500 less than last year, the haj mission has also been scaled down to a total of 25, including 10 medical staff. According to Essop, this would place severe restrictions on the mission.
Meanwhile, for hujjaj who had still held on to hope that they may get a chance to complete the fifth pillar of Islam this year, Steenkamp had this message of encouragement: “Alhamdullillah, we give praise and thanks to Allah in all circumstances. We never give up hope and if anything changes we will go out of our way to negotiate whatever we can, but at this late stage, whatever hope there is is fading fast.” VOC (Munadia Karaan)
Last modified on Sunday, 02 September 2012 09:48
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