Her hands raised skyward, Mitchells Plain’s Soraya Joshua asked God to grant her the opportunity to perform Islam’s most sacred journey.
But now she is waiting for a R28 000 refund.
Joshua is among 80 hujaaj – or Muslim pilgrims – from Cape Town waiting for travel agents to return thousands of rands paid upfront for hajj travel packages.
Joshua bought her hajj package from local travel company As-Sabireen.
The company’s owner Faizel Moos told Weekend Argus they were to have secured hajj visas from a Saudi Arabian contact, foregoing the normal quote route regulated by the South African Hajj and Umrah Council (Sahuc).
But the plan disintegrated when the local hajj industry exploded amidst allegations of corruption relating to visa deals.
A disappointed Joshua said she had trusted the travel agent.
“I didn’t expect this, but the outcome will be something good. I really believe that this is something spiritual. It is still my wish to go. I hope to go next year,” she said.
Moos promised this week that he would reimburse the pilgrims who bought hajj packages from his company.
“They paid in full so we will pay them back in full,” he said.
This dynamic – spirituality combined with money – irks Moeshfieka Botha, an independent consumer consultant who works with debt counselling firm Credit Matters.
She argues that pilgrims should be better informed consumers.
“There’s a duality to this situation. The consumer views this as a religious and spiritual transaction. The agent views it as a business deal. And that is why there can be exploitation,” she said.
Pilgrims, she suggested, needed to get clued up on their rights as consumers.
“They must ask for information about what they are paying for. They should have all this information and itemised billing in contracts.”
Botha has been battling hajj travel operators to get back cash for a number of pilgrims this year.
One, Delft’s Abdullah Damon, said Botha secured his R58 000 refund from As-Sabireen.
Damon said he had previously had to fight to get back R78 000 from another travel agent who sold him a hajj package for him and his wife.
“I met Moeshfieka at a meeting for pilgrims. She started negotiating with As-Sabireen to get our money back. She put pressure on them to get the money,” he said, adding that he believed agents were not supposed to take cash until they knew whether travellers would definitely get a visa.
“But I also gave them my money with a smile because I wanted to go on hajj,” Damon admitted, vowing that when he tried to go again next year, he would involve either Botha or a lawyer.
Botha said consumers needed to be aware of the Consumer Protection Act, as well as the newly established Consumer Commission and National Consumer Court.
“This behaviour has been going on all the years.
“Now we have legislation that gives people rights and recourse.
“We can take matters to the Consumer Protector if travel agents don’t pay back pilgrims,” she said, adding that she had already managed to secure refunds of R182 000 for four pilgrims from a single agent this year.
There were six others she had also helped.
“But this is actually not about the money. It is about the emotional trauma that these people have endured.”
Botha said that once travel agents returned to Cape Town, and were unable to pay back pilgrims who were left stranded without hajj visas, she would take cases to the Consumer Protector.
Some pilgrims, she revealed, were also considering laying criminal charges against travel agents.
HAJJ is the compulsory pilgrimage that every Muslim has to undertake to the Saudi Arabian city Mecca.
A visa quota system curtails the number of Muslims a year that can travel to Saudi Arabia from each country, a situation that has created a hit-and-miss system that does not enable every prospective pilgrim to be included in the final tally.
Dishonest travel agents add to pilgrims’ woes, as they sell hajj packages while visas are still being processed. Pilgrims who are not included in the quota then have to wait for their refunds.
Cape Town is full of tales of pilgrims still awaiting refunds from previous years.
This year has been no different for Muslim pilgrims, with many again being denied visas and now waiting for refunds from their tour operators.