Johannesburg – After two long years the Saudi Arabian government has lifted all Covid-19 travel restrictions. This means that South African Muslims can now travel to the Holy Lands to perform Hajj.
Although the restrictions have been lifted, the Hajj quota for South Africa has not yet been announced. Sedick Steenkamp, Chairman of the South African Muslim Travel Association (SAMTA), is currently in Saudi Arabia trying to get clarification on the Hajj situation.
According to Steenkamp, no announcement has been made about the Hajj season as he believes the ministry is still “busy working on Ramadan issues”, as well as Hajj allocation.
Although there are still about three months left before the Hajj season, there are concerns that the quota will be released late, and people will not have enough time to prepare. There are various things that a person needs to do before they go for Hajj, especially if they are going for the first time. It is a spiritual trip that requires you to mentally prepare yourself as well as take classes to understand how to perform this blessed act that takes place over five days.
Typically, people like to be in the Holy Lands a week or even more before Hajj begins. However, there is no need to panic because Steenkamp believes there will be enough time for preparations to take place properly but also advised that those who wish to go should stay ready.
“There’s still enough time at this stage. If it [quotas] comes before Ramadan, by the end of Ramadan. From a logistics point of view, we can still do it. From a Hajee’s [one who intends to perform Hajj] point of view, we’ve always said to our Hajees to keep yourself ready. Carry on with the Hajj classes. Don’t drop your guard. Carry on with preparing yourself. You’ve got to be prepared to go at short notice. That is what it is at the moment.”
Steenkamp has urged those that want to go to also have talks with the employers on taking leave should they be accepted to go for Hajj. That can be a difficult conversation to have when one is unsure of when they are going or even if they are going.
The quota system was imposed in the 1990s after 402 pilgrims died during a demonstration by Iranian pilgrims holding an anti-US and anti-Israel protest. Prior to this incident there was not a quota system and pilgrims came as they pleased. According to Steenkamp, there is a different quota for Muslim and non-Muslim countries and South Africa is part of the Muslim countries.
“From a logistical point of view countries can perform Hajj in two ways. You are either part of the non-Muslim countries or you are part of the Muslim countries, and they are a different criterion for both … Currently we see from the ministry that South Africa is lumped with the Muslim countries which means that that we fall within that category. We get 0.0001% off our Muslim population and so for South Africa to have an opportunity at least to increase our quota we must do things right and the right thing to do is for us to be part of the non-Muslim country system.”
The Saudi authorities usually assign one thousand places for each million persons per country if they fall under the Muslim category. Non-Muslim countries do not have such a severe quota system. South Africa has been treated as a Muslim country since 2011, said Steenkamp.
“It must be changed and when you talk to the Saudi Embassy and the Saudi Ministry, they will only do what our government tells them to do and that’s the way it should be because it’s government to government. We’ve been talking to our government as well to try and rectify the situation. In rectifying the situation, we believe that there is a better challenge of us increasing the quota because currently in the Saudi system there’s only one company representing South Africa in that Muslim country system. Now if you can get more companies to be able to register and to apply for a quota so much the better for the Muslim ummah.”
It isn’t clear who is the one company that is representing the country, but they receive the quotas and pass it onto the government. Steenkamp believes that the current quotas are incorrect because South Africa is not in the correct country system and wants to change it, but through the proper measures.
“When we change the system, it will definitely be for the benefit of the public and if the public benefits, everybody benefits. The first point is that we need to ensure that we do the right thing which is in compliance with our constitution, in compliance with our South African laws, in compliance with Saudi laws and in compliance with international standards and if we do that, we can all support that.”
Steenkamp is waiting on the South African government to provide some answers on the situation and hopes they make the right decision when it comes to moving South Africa to the non-Muslim country list.
Ashraf Garda spoke with Sedick Steenkamp about the SA Hajj quota system: