Home NewsEurope Trapped in Poland: Bureaucratic failures and frustrations of SA journalists

Trapped in Poland: Bureaucratic failures and frustrations of SA journalists

by Salaamedia
Some of the members heading back onto the plane Photo Twitter/@PieterDuToit

South Africa – The almost 120-member team that was meant to accompany President Cyril Ramaphosa to the war-torn Ukraine and Russia is back home after being denied entry into Poland. The group, which consisted of local journalists, South African Police Service (SAPS) and South African National Defence Force (SANDF), were denied entry after a dispute regarding permits for the weapons on board.

In an impromptu media briefing, Ramaphosa’s head of security, Major General Wally Rhoode pointed to racism and sabotage as reasons for having been prevented from disembarking the aircraft. In the video published by eNCA journalist Aviwe Mtila, Rhoode accused Poland of playing with the life of the president.

“They are delaying us. They are putting the life of our president in jeopardy because we could have been in Kyiv this afternoon already … I want you guys to see this, how racist they are. When we started to open our packages, they wanted to confiscate our firearms, which is why we had to put them back.”

However, the director of the National Security Department and spokesman for Poland’s Minister-Special Services Coordinator, Stanisław Żaryn, dismissed this and said accusations against Poland of racism are “nonsense”. 

Despite claims of having all necessary documentation, it was later revealed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland that the original permits and certification were lacking, leading to the detainment.

“Dangerous goods were on board the plane, which South African representatives did not have permission to bring in. In addition, there were persons on board the aircraft of whose presence the Polish side had not been notified beforehand.”

However, the Presidency labelled these claims by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the permits as “all lies and misinformation”.


Detention and conditions onboard the plane in Poland

During the detainment, the 120-member team faced uncomfortable conditions, enduring the summer heat and shortage of food, explained Lindsay Dentlinger, EWN reporter. The toilets required regular pumping from the tarmac. Despite the discomfort, the prevailing feeling among the journalists was frustration rather than fear for their safety.

“I don’t think I ever felt that my life was in danger … Largely for journalists I think [it was] very frustrating, very annoying, very disheartening. We had come so far. We had already gone through so much just to be on that plane. It had been a crazy, anxious and tenacious time for all of us just to get to that point. We wanted to be off that aircraft and bring the African perspective to this African initiative, this African Peace Mission and again the story would be relied upon by foreign journalists to tell the story. A lot of it was just frustration at not being able to do our job which kind of overtook the uncomfortableness of us being trapped in an aircraft.”

Contrary to claims made in a Polish statement, the individuals onboard were not provided with food by the Polish authorities. Instead, they received Burger King meals courtesy of the South African embassy.


Journalistic frustrations

Limited communication and access to information frustrated the journalists. Their desire to cover the unfolding story and participate in important meetings went unfulfilled. The reliability of the information they received was questioned, undermining their ability to fulfil their journalistic duties effectively.

“It was more annoying and frustrating especially as the story was starting to unfold. The president had arrived in Poland. He was meeting the Polish President. He was on an aircraft just down the runway from us and we were trapped. For journalists that was the overwhelming feeling of frustration.”


Presidential security and detention of personnel

Of the almost 120-member team, 11 were journalists and the rest were SAPS and SANDF members. While Rhoode accused the Polish government of playing with the life of the president, the president was not left alone, said Dentlinger.

“What we do know is that there were what are known as the advanced teams. Security personnel who had gone to the three countries that the president would pass through on this peace mission to smooth out the path and to check on the safety features. He took a very dangerous overnight 15-hour train ride. One of our journalists on board was due to take that train journey with him. Certainly, some of the security personnel on board our flight was also supposed to undertake that journey with him. We don’t know a number of how many people were travelling with him but there were certainly these advanced crews that had already left.”

This raises a very important question as to why so many security personnel were needed for this trip. If the president felt safe and comfortable enough to travel with the advanced team, was there a need for such a big security team?

After spending 26 hours on the plane, the journalists and crew were allowed to disembark. They were put up in Warsaw hotels on 16 June before ultimately departing on 18 June.

The ordeal faced by the journalists trapped on the plane highlights the bureaucratic failures, lack of communication, and psychological toll they endured. The incident raises questions about accountability and support for those affected. It also emphasises the need for improved planning and transparency in high-stakes trips undertaken by the South African government.


Lindsay Dentlinger spoke to Julie Alli on a variety of issues including the costs of the trip, The Challenges of planning a high-risk trip and the emotional impact the journey had on fellow journalists. Listen to that conversation here:

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