In 1989, an elderly man walked into a fish and chips shop in Jo’burg’s inner city and offered the owner, Fazel Ebrahim, this advice: “Always save your shiniest coin.”
Since then, Ebrahim plucked the glossiest coin from the till and dropped it into a tin. By the time he went on hajj in 2011, he had saved R150 000 for him and his wife to make the religious Islamic pilgrimage.
The annual hajj is one the largest gatherings of people in a single moment in the world. It is obligatory for all Muslims to make the journey to Mecca at least once in their lifetime if they are physically, mentally and financially able.
The Ebrahims were 50 years old when they made the pilgrimage. It had taken 30 years of saving and two debts to God that needed to be repaid. When their daughter was born in 1985, she required two operations.
“My pledge to the Almighty was for every operation that she comes out of successfully, I will send somebody for hajj that cannot afford to go,” Ebrahim says.
The operations worked and Ebrahim began saving. His first sponsored haji was a taxi driver who frequented his shop, and the second an imam, originally from Tanzania, at the Brixton mosque in Jo’burg.
The cost of hajj has become a strain because the rand has lost value. According to Shaheen Essop, the president of the South African Hajj and Umrah Council (Sahuc), 40% of South Africans who have successfully registered to go on hajj have “dropped out. You basically have an accredited pilgrim who can’t now afford it.”
A hajj package in 2001 would have cost R27 000, and this year, a pilgrim will pay R75 000.
The process to go on hajj takes at least four years. A South African first has to register on Sahuc’s online database. They wait for four to five years before receiving a notification that they have been given permission to go. They then have one month to secure a hajj operator to book their flights and accommodation.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia gives each country a quota of pilgrims who can travel on hajj to avoid overcrowding. South Africa, based on the estimated size of its Muslim population, is allowed to send 2 500 pilgrims a year, which creates a waiting list.
In January this year, many Muslims will have received an SMS from Sahuc with the good news that they can finally perform their hajj. But some will discover that, when they registered in 2012, their savings were enough. Now, it costs more.
When Yasmin Johnson went on hajj last year, she ran out of money and had to phone home in Cape Town to ask her daughter to send cash.
When she first arrived on hajj, she could only afford sandwiches and tea.
One night a man from London spotted her eating cold bread for supper and told her where warm prepared curries, breads and desserts were being served for the London group. Johnson snuck in and was surprised by the array of rich Indian foods.
“I tell you, I had my meal quietly, and I ate and I was happy. I thought this is the life, hey,” she remembers.
Unable to resist, she returned for breakfast. When a man politely struck up a conversation with her, her face went purposefully blank.
“On the second or third morning, there was a young man and he was talking to me in Gujarati, but now I had to make like I don’t know what he’s saying,” she laughs.
She was 65 when she went to Mecca. For the previous eight years, she had dutifully put away R300 from her salary to afford the R37 000 for her hajj package. Donations were made to pay for her airfare.
The airline fee has become a thorn in the side of many hajj operators. Essop joked that when Sahuc attempted to discuss costs with the airlines, they would retort that the South African national carrier should then do the heavy lifting.
Essop says a plane ticket would usually cost R6 000, but, as in Johnson’s case, the price can escalate to R15 000 during the pilgrimage month.
Abdurahman Laily, a hajj operator who has travelled on hajj for the past 18 years, told the Mail & Guardian that less than 5% of hujjaj travel business class.
Hajj operators make a profit from the hajj and, in some cases, have been accused of breaking Sahuc’s code of conduct.
Hujjaj sign a contract with the hajj operator that must specify all costs. According to Sahuc, there should be no additional costs when a pilgrim arrives in Saudi.
But, on arriving in Mecca, Johnson discovered that she would have to pay additional costs that her hajj operator had not mentioned. If Johnson did not pay the bus fare her hajj operator demanded, she would not have been able to return to the Grand Mosque to make her final farewell.
Hajj is a physical journey for Muslims, particularly those who wish to climb Mount Arafat where the Prophet Muhammad made his final sermon.
Johnson had been advised by Sahuc’s medical team to get a wheelchair because she is diabetic. But she had to walk gruelling distances because her hajj operator told her she would have to pay extra for a wheelchair and there was no one to push it.
“I feel that when we stand on Arafat, we should all be equal before Allah,” Johnson says.
Essop said that, in 2006, Sahuc had accredited 42 hajj operators to perform services to the hujjaj. In 2017, just 15 remain. Sahuc has blacklisted some and issued warnings and fines against others. Competition is also rife: to take a group on hajj, the operator needs at least 50 people.
Ebrahim-Khalil Hassan, a public policy analyst, has developed a website where prospective pilgrims can compare the prices of packages offered by hajj operators. He has received hundreds of emails from people looking for help.
Hassan says pilgrims should ideally pay a small tax, which would go into a fund to sponsor Muslims in South Africa who can’t afford hajj. His idea hasn’t been unpopular, prompting him to call for dialogue with Sahuc. Hajj preparation shouldn’t be treated as separate from inequality, Hassan says.
“Some people will basically almost never be able to go to hajj,” he says.
One of the difficulties, he believes, is the gossip spread among Muslims about the profit Sahuc rakes in or about corruption in the council.
The organisation’s audited financial statements have been publicly available on their website for the past seven years. Hassan says that redress can only happen with facts.
“Our community is sometimes susceptible to becoming hysterical about issues,” he says.
Laily, however, says Muslims need to be more “conscientious” when it comes to hajj. Laily is associated with one of the biggest operators, Al Anwar Express. The demands set by the majority of the group the operators contract with determine the level of luxury of the pilgrimage.
According to Laily, South Africans like to travel in three-to-five star packages, which allows them to stay at international hotels such as the Hilton or modest guesthouses.
If South African hujjaj knew the power they had to negotiate less pricy options, the hajj could become more affordable. Laily says the only time a Saudi agent will agree to book inexpensive accommodation or travel is when a large group of people can make the booking.
“It’s about trying to lobby people and saying are you prepared to make hajj this way, and then you could get prices coming down,” Laily says.
Sahuc is unable to regulate the price hajj operators charge to the hujjaj because of factors such as airline costs, Essop said. The accommodation and busfare charges are also set in Saudi Arabia, making it difficult for Sahuc to regulate operators.
Hassan said a major concern was that the profit hajj operators make is also unregulated, but Essop points out South Africa is a free market and Sahuc is unable to interfere.
For some hujjaj, profits and high costs come second to spiritually. Mureeda Stephen converted to Islam in 2010. She grew up in an Afrikaner family who attended different churches. It was when Stephen went to a mosque for her cousin’s wedding that she found comfort.
She was sponsored to go on hajj last year because she was unable to afford the full costs herself. She has no regrets about the costs, and some of her most poignant memories as a woman travelling alone were of marriage proposals and the way in which men working in shops would wait to help her because she did not have a male companion.
“You’re there by Allah’s grace. You can’t complain. You have to have sabr [patience],” Stephen says.
For many hujjaj, hajj is an invitation from Allah, and their ability to afford as well as endure the trip is through the will of Allah.
Essop, Hassan and Laily agree that spirituality is only one part of hajj. If hujjaj are unprepared to ensure they have the financial savvy for the journey then they might never make the pilgrimage.
Ebrahim now owns a shoe shop and bank cards and notes have largely replaced his coin tin. Whenever he gets coins in change, though, he still slips the shiniest one away for safekeeping — or perhaps a second hajj.