It was a David vs Goliath encounter in the 21st century. The brief but furious battle fought on social media by Ugandan economic warriors against the bullying South African giant that had collected a heap of dollars from scores of tour operators and then denied them visas ahead of an important tourism expo in Durban. But after a few days of spirited fighting, the Ugandan economic patriots led by tour operator Amos Wekesa emerged victorious.
It was on April 30th when Great Lakes Safaris CEO Amos Wekesa made a protest on Facebook bringing to public attention the plight of scores of Ugandan tour operators who had been denied South African visas for their travel to Durban for Indaba tourism fare where they go annually to seek business from all over the world. The Ugandans had already paid thousands of dollars each for exhibiting, and they had also spent more on hotel accommodation in advance. They had also paid for the visas but did not expect any refund. The blatant injustice seemed unbelievable but real. While voicing the plight for dozens of the affected, Amos Wekesa knew that the complaints were factual because his own staff at Great Lakes had been denied visas and he knew exactly how much they spent.
Moreover, as Wekesa disclosed, the previous month Ugandan tour operators had similarly lost millions after being denied visas to go to Cape Town for another exhibition. But ironically, Uganda’s predicament had been diagnosed by the slain South African reformer Steve Biko who half a century ago said that “the oppressor’s most potent weapon is the mind of the oppressed”. And so it was that when Wekesa raised the tour operators’ predicament with a of concerned ministers, they did not see any problem saying that with their diplomatic passports, they had already got their visas and were ready to proceed to South Africa.
Flabbergasted by the sheer insensitivity of the Ugandan political appointees and their ignorance of their responsibility to Ugandans regarding the very functions they were going to attend to the country, Wekesa took the battle to social media, calling on ordinary citizens to share and circulate the fleecing Ugandans were being subjected to.
Though combative in his approach, Wekesa carefully avoided politics and did not mention Uganda’s invaluable contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle in its final, decisive years when the frontline states had been beaten into submission by the apartheid military machine that forced them to let the ANC leave their territory, and the young NRM government, hardly a year in power, took the Umkoto we Siziwe into Luwero, making Kaweweta their training base for several years. Wekesa only mentioned a few naked economic facts like MTN, Stanbic, Eskom, saying that licensing such enterprises by other African countires has greatly helped make South Africa’s economy the second largest on the continent.
Ugandans joined Wekesa in the battle and a couple of days later the South African officials relented and started giving the visas to the Ugandan applicants whom they had so unreasonably turned away. But Wekesa urged the people sustain the ‘fire’on social media and the matter soon came to president Cyril Ramaphosa’s. The South African president communicated a “goodwill message” to his Ugandan counterpart.
President Yoweri Museveni accounted to the nation and om May 6th twitted thus “…. His Excellency Cyril Ramaphosa who has taken interest in resolving the unnecessary bureaucracy Ugandans are subjected to when South African visas. Ugandans should get visas on entry in South Africa just as we do with them here.”
The battle had lasted exactly one week.
And what was the reaction of the Ugandan ministers who had not seen any problem with carriers of ordinary passports being denied visas to South Africa after they had each spent thousands of dollars in participation fees and expenses, on learning that Presidents Ramaphosa and Museveni had agreed to eliminate this unjust immigration non-tariff barrier ? You guessed right. The ministers sent congratulation messages to Wekesa on the battle he had fought. But Wekesa with humility attributes victory to the Ugandans on social media who spread the word after he ignited the protest.
Lesson learnt? Ugandans must stand up for their economic rights. They should gain confidence to take on the competitors, and this starts with the cabinet ministers plus other leaders at all levels.