In Van der Merwe and Another v Taylor NNO and Others 2008 (1) SA 1 (CC), a South African traveller was arrested at Cape Town International Airport after customs officials found an amount of 130,000 Euros and US$ 21,249 in his hand luggage, far exceeding the permissible travel allowance in terms of the local foreign currency regulations. The traveller’s explanation that the foreign currency included the total allowance for a group of people who had left two days earlier, and that he was simply carrying the foreign currency on their behalf, made no impression on the authorities. The money was confiscated and eventually placed in the possession of the Reserve Bank pending a criminal trial. The traveller thereupon instituted an action, on an urgent basis, for return of the foreign currency, arguing that he was the owner of the money.
His case was dismissed in both the High Court and the Full Court, as well as by the majority of the judges in the Constitutional Court. The CC ruled that the traveller was the owner only of 20,865 Euros (his own permissible travel allowance) but not the balance. In any event, so the Court held, he was not entitled to get any of the money back
since there was no evidence that the money would not be required in future criminal proceedings as contemplated in s 20 of the Criminal Procedure Act 1977.
The message is clear: South African travellers taking with them foreign currency in excess of the permissible allowances, do so at their own risk. If caught, even a plausible explanation may not be sufficient to prevent seizure of the money and an arrest, not to mention a spoiled holiday.