Gareth Cantrell and Shaun Loots

A Johannesburg gay couple of almost five years say they were harassed, intimidated and humiliated by an O.R. Tambo immigration official when leaving the country for an overseas holiday.

On 18 September, Gareth Cantrell and Shaun Loots arrived at the airport to board a flight to their island destination of Reunion.

When they reached passport control, Cantrell handed over both their passports to an immigration officer. The man asked why the passports were presented together, and why Loots was not capable of carrying his own passport.

Cantrell explained to Mambaonline that, “Because we travel together all the time, we always hand over our passports together. This time was no different.”

Cantrell told the official that if he preferred, Loots could take the passport back, and stand in line again. The man refused, and asked the nature of their relationship; to which they replied that they are partners.

He asked if by partners, they meant that they are gay. When they said yes, the official shockingly asked who “the man” is and who “the woman” is in the relationship.

Cantrell replied that the question was offensive gender-stereotyping. “He was not happy with this answer,” claims Cantrell, and he continued to ask the couple about their intimate sex life.

“He questioned us on who put whose penis in whose anus, and how it felt. He asked what we do and how we do it – the whole lot.”

Said Cantrell: “I tried to avoid the questions as far as possible but it was embarrassing. I was red as a tomato. And he was belligerent. It wasn’t just normal curiosity, which anyway would have been inappropriate. He wouldn’t give me my passport back until I’d finished answering all of his questions.”

Loots said that the official stamped and gave his passport back “but then wouldn’t allow us to go through until he was finished with Gareth.”

The official eventually allowed the couple to move on, but the disturbing incident left them shaken. They were so shocked and humiliated that it didn’t immediately occur to them to take down the man’s name or demand to see a supervisor.

While still at the airport, they contacted lawyer Coenie Kukkuk who advised them to take a photo of the official and get as much information as possible. The man, however, was no longer there, but they noted his booth number and the time of the incident.

After the couple returned to South Africa from their week-long trip they sent a letter of complaint to Tariq Mellet, the Director of Immigration Services at O.R. Tambo, who is with the Department of Home Affairs.

To his credit, Mellet replied within 24 hours, offering his apologies over the incident and promising to identify the official and take swift disciplinary action.

“Your reported experience of such a line of questioning and such an intrusion into your private lives would constitute a violation of our constitutional commitments, an abuse of authority and is wholly unacceptable,” said Mellet in his letter to the couple.

He added that the officers’ actions were the “complete antithesis of the ethos and commitments of the department, the foundations of our democratic state and the freedoms we all cherish.”

“An officer is entitled to ask to see each person individually, but if a couple in a marriage or life partnership present themselves together and state that they are in a spousal relationship, regardless of their gender, the officer may proceed with the standard operating procedures, which do not include the kind of gross questioning and comments reported by yourselves,” said the director.

Mellet promised to ensure that officials at the airport are further sensitised on issues including sexual orientation and trained “on this element of our constitutional obligations.”

He also said that he would look at introducing posters in arrivals and departures areas with an urgent quick response number so that travellers can report future abuses and immediate action can be taken.

Cantrell told Mambaonline that he was “very happy” with the response. The couple has been informed that the official has been identified and that disciplinary action against him was in process.

Loots commented that they don’t wish for the man to be fired but to be reprimanded and to be educated about what he did wrong.

Cantrell said that he came forward with the incident to both warn the LGBT community that they could face similar incidents, as well as to recognise and commend the swift action of the immigration services director and his department.

He urged LGBT people to report incidents of harassment and discrimination. “You can do something about it. The perception is that nothing ever gets done about these things but the response we got shows that [state officials] are doing something about it and that they are interested in presenting themselves properly.”

Get the Mamba Newsletter

Latest Comments
  1. Danie de Waal
    Reply -
  2. Johan
    Reply -
  3. Wichard fella
    Reply -
  4. Yogi
    Reply -
  5. Craig
    Reply -
  6. Yogi
    Reply -
  7. Paul
    Reply -
  8. JU
    Reply -

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend