Will the Hawks get the OR Tambo Airport thieves this time?

In this timely piece, which lends vital perspective to the unfolding Hawks probe into the latest OR Tambo cash heist, Ed Herbst, reminds us of what is already known about security there. It makes for frightening reading and reminds us how often in our turbulent recent political snouting history, those directly accountable simply remove anyone who threatens to disturb the looting and corruption that goes on under their command. And if they continue being bothersome beyond the piggery gate, they bring in the Hawks and charge their accusers with something – anything to shut them up or at best, lock them away. If the OR Tambo Airport thieving fiasco wasn’t so outrageously blatant, it would be hugely comical, so ridiculous and other-worldly are some of the episodes described. Bottom line, the airport’s security is not up to the task, nor has it even vaguely taken to heart the lessons learnt from the 2006 armed heist of R100 million there. Let’s see whether the Hawks talons are sharp enough to impale the rodents they’re supposed to hunt – or whether the Zuptoid Falconers will continue launching them in more politically enriching directions.  – Chris Bateman

By Ed Herbst*

In 2006, when armed gunmen stole R100 million in foreign and local currency at one of South Africa’s key entry points – OR Tambo International Airport – authorities promised to put an end to such acts of criminality. – City Press editorial 12/3/2017

‘The thieves had been crawling through from the construction site into a narrow space in the ceiling above the Transfer Line. The sides of the Transfer Line had been boxed in to prevent bags falling off and this played into the hands of the thieves because they could not be seen as they hooked bags passing below them, hoisting them into the void. There they had been able to open the bags at their leisure and sift through the contents, take what they wanted and discard the rest. The ceiling void resembled the first sale day at Woolworths an hour after the doors opened, and within the space of two hours, the BPU (Bag Protection Unit) recovered 89 suitcases and holdalls. Most were empty.’ – Steve Chart 89 bags and counting – My long haul to OR TAMBO INTERNATIONAL and the MYSTERY of the pilfered BAGGAGE (Jacana, 2013)

Our dearly-beloved and much-missed ‘Intellectual Lecher’ would probably describe the media frenzy over the latest O.R. Tambo Airport heist as a ‘hullabaloo’.

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

Let us, though, never underestimate the job-creating importance of ORT and if you question that you have clearly forgotten that this is where Paul O’Sullivan got his sleuthing start when Jackie ‘Finish and Klaar’ Selebi took umbrage because O’Sullivan was curbing his snouting activities there.

As anyone who has read Steve Chart’s book and the anchor quotes to this article will realise, O. R. Tambo is a Snouting Academy of note where the apprentices learn the basics of accessing the trough and, hopefully, go on to bigger and more lucrative tenderpreneur projects.

We are indebted to Chart for explaining, in his book 89 bags and counting how this all works. He had previously worked at Scotland Yard before joining ACSA on the security side in March 2007.

Here is a typical example of an O. R. Tambo Academy graduate at work:

A member of the maintenance staff was dismissed but failed to return his high visibility reflective work jacket or permit when he left — a state of affairs that was fairly common, but was eventually dealt with and resolved. His manager could not provide the jacket number because no records were kept. The ex-employee was, therefore, free to return to the airport whenever he wanted.

Wearing his maintenance reflective jacket, he raised no suspicion when he walked onto the conveyor lines behind the check-in counters and gained access to the airside through the baggage opening.

Late one busy Friday afternoon, the maintenance contractor-turned-thief arrived at the airport. He donned his company reflective jacket, hopped onto the conveyor belts behind the check-in counters and casually made his way through the plastic curtains. He hopped off just before the right turn, moved the two CCTV cameras (I’d long given up recommending replacing them with cameras that could not be interfered with), made himself comfortable and started helping himself to passengers’ bags as they passed by.

The restaurants below were enjoying the increased trade that busy weekends at the airport bring. In one, staff were working at the kitchen sink washing dishes when suddenly there was a loud crack as one of the ceiling panels gave way. The thief fell through the hole and landed in a sink full of hot water and soaking dishes. He was quickly followed by clothing and other items he had nabbed from passengers’ bags. There was little more that shocked restaurant workers could do but stand back and watch in disbelief as the thief, wearing a numbered maintenance company reflective jacket, calmly climbed out of the sink, cheekily grabbed some of his stolen bounty and then casually walked out…

After dealing with the incident, I made my way back to my office and opened my emails to find a complaint from a very irate grandmother whose two young granddaughters had travelled unaccompanied and were going to spend time with her at her guesthouse.

The older of the two girls had saved her pocket money for a year in anticipation of her visit. She innocently put her money into her holdall, which was checked-in as hold luggage. When she opened her bag at her grandmother’s, her money had been stolen. The grandmother had complained to the airline but received no response. Having dealt with the airline myself, I told her she was unlikely to receive any satisfaction from them, but I did ask ACSA Customer Services if there was anything they could do to help. Michelle Kalkwarf, a caring and dedicated worker, suggested sending a gift voucher from a well-known department store. Unfortunately, the voucher did not arrive before her granddaughter returned to Johannesburg so the grandmother forwarded the voucher by registered mail to her granddaughter. It never arrived. When she made enquiries at the Post Office, she was told that the entire bag of registered mail, including her granddaughter’s voucher, had been stolen. Michelle was good enough to arrange a replacement voucher…

Right there you have, in microcosm, the Hyena State which the ANC has assiduously promoted for the past two decades – a glorious moment in the Tsunami of Sleaze and a worthy ‘I didn’t join the Struggle to remain poor’ addition to the Domesday Book of Snouting.

OR Tambo International Airport

Sewer rats

Chart’s book is full of such anecdotes, quite a few of which relate to what he calls the Sewer rats.

These are Academy graduates who specialise in creating tiny, unobtrusive holes in perimeter walls and fences to access the luggage carousels.

At around 8pm, Terminal A was in full swing and the conveyor lines were operating to capacity. The patrolling security guard was making her way along the narrow gap between the conveyor lines and sliding panels. As she reached the midway point on the conveyor line above check-in desk number 50, she saw one of the panels slowly slide open. A man, wearing only underpants and covered in grey dust, appeared before her. She turned tail and ran, screaming that she had seen a ghost. She was hysterical and nothing could convince her that the apparition that had appeared before her was a person and not a ghost. She refused to work in the area again and it proved extremely difficult to persuade her colleagues, who were all very superstitious, to work the area.

The ‘ghost’ could only have gained access to the gap between the sliding panels and wall by climbing through the ceiling void above Terminal A — an especially dangerous venture considering it is almost two storeys high and very dark.  

The ANC clearly could not allow the 2010 Soccer World Cup to be plagued by the everyday luggage theft at O. R. Tambo to which tax-paying South Africans are routinely exposed and threw a huge amount of money and personnel into making the airport secure and preventing the Academy graduates from plying their normal trade.

Business as usual

Once the tournament was over, however, it was business as usual and Chart was becoming very disillusioned – one of the chapters in the book is headlined A brush with the ANC.

My frustration nevertheless increased daily as it became clear that, no matter what I did, the problem of pilferage was never going to go away. In my current position I was papering over the cracks. Perhaps I had done a reasonable job but, in my view, reasonable was not enough. I was ready to leave.

After four years I had come full circle. Where security was concerned O. R. Tambo was still a leaky boat. Pilferage was ongoing and I couldn’t help feeling I was shovelling shit against the tide.

Chart returned to England in 2011 where he retired and I wonder what he makes of the latest heist. What is clear is that, three years after his book was published, the ‘Let-them-eat-pap-but-no-vleis’ Wasteful Expenditure Specialists at  Loothuli House have done nothing of consequence to improve security at ORT.

He will, though, be intrigued to know that the O. R. Tambo Apprentice Academy is assisted by a stellar ‘Slice for the Elite’ buccaneer board of directors. This board is fully representative of the multi-faceted Robber’s Roost which the ANC, according to Gwede Mantashe, has become. This Broad Church-turned-Whited Sepulchre of exploiters, spongers, bludgers and leeches includes representatives of the Champagne Communists, the Credit Card Conmen, the KFC Compradors,  the Louboutin Libertarians, the McDonald’s Majoritarians,  the Tenderpreneur Tricksters, the Top Ten Travelers and the Zama Zama Zuptoids who, as you know, function best underground and in the dark. Their input is regarded as indispensable by the Sewer Rats…

In closing, a lovely anecdote from Chart’s book:

Two giants were on holiday, on a walking tour around the world. Their huge strides enabled them to cross vast oceans and easily negotiate the tallest mountains. As they arrived in each country, one would lower his arm through the clouds and, by feel, tell the other which city they were in. On a particularly cloudy day, one giant reached down and told his companion that they were in Johannesburg. In fact, to be more specific,they were at O. R. Tambo International Airport.

“How do you know that?” asked his friend.

“They’ve stolen my bag,” he replied.

  • Ed Herbst is a retired veteran journalist who writes in his own capacity.
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