By Jason Warner
For the third time in less than two years, British authorities are investigating an alleged attempt by an SAA crew member to smuggle drugs through Heathrow International Airport.
A senior SAA flight attendant from Cape Town is in British police custody after allegedly being found with more than R1 million in cocaine strapped to her body.
UK Home Office spokesman Jamie Hamill said Elphia Dlamini, 42, had been detained after about 3kg of the drug were found during routine checks of crew members on a flight from Johannesburg.
Last year, the 15 crew members of an SAA flight were arrested at Heathrow in January and those of another flight in February after drugs were found in luggage.
Airline crews are subject to the same security checks as passengers in Britain and South Africa.
On Saturday, UK Border Agency officers searched each of the crew members on SAA flight SA236.
The cocaine allegedly found on Dlamini was worth an estimated £120 000 (R1 365 600).
Dlamini was charged with trying to import a Class A drug and appeared in the Uxbridge Magistrate's Court near Heathrow yesterday afternoon. She was remanded until July 6.
"UK Border Agency officers are determined to stop illegal drugs reaching our streets," Philip Astle, Heathrow director of the UK Border Agency, said.
Scotland Yard spokesman Eddie Townsend said Dlamini's arrest was under the UK Border Agency's jurisdiction, and police would carry out only a follow-up investigation.
SAA spokesman Fani Zulu confirmed the arrest, and said the airline would investigate how security had been breached in South Africa.
"We view this in a very serious light. We've been co-operating with authorities in the United Kingdom and we'll also do a follow-up investigation on our side."
Zulu said Dlamini had been employed by SAA for 15 years.
He said the airline had beefed up security since last year's arrests in an attempt to deter staff from trying to make money as drug mules.
In January last year, 50kg of cannabis and 4kg of cocaine were found in the luggage of a member of the crew of a flight from Johannesburg to Heathrow. The 15 crew members were released on bail after their fingerprints and DNA samples were taken.
Charges against 14 of them were dropped, while police continued to investigate the 15th crew member.
The following month, British police found 2kg of cocaine in luggage alleged to be an SAA crew member's. The flight's crew members were arrested and released on bail.
The investigation into the case is continuing.
Two days later, in South Africa, police arrested a security officer and another SAA employee. The officer was alleged to have given the SAA staff member security tags allowing her to carry extra luggage.
Interpol and British police said at the time they were investigating whether the alleged drug mules had been working for the same syndicate.
"We carry out searches on our side and have enhanced our security," Zulu said.
"Unfortunately, in this case the modus operandi was slightly different as (the crew member) allegedly had the drugs on her person, and not in luggage."
Zulu said efforts by drug mules to outsmart security posed a challenge.
Asked why SAA did not carry out body searches of staff, Zulu said the Airports Company of South Africa (Acsa) had taken over responsibility for searching airline employees after last year's incidents.
Acsa spokeswoman Unathi Batyashe-Fillis said the company was investigating where its security team had lapsed, and would decide which aspects needed adjusting.
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To obtain crack-cocaine, ordinary cocaine hydrochloride is concentrated by heating the drug in a solution of baking soda until the water evaporates. This type of base-cocaine makes a cracking sound when heated; hence the name "crack". Base-cocaine vaporises at a low temperature, so it can be easily inhaled via a heated pipe.
Crack cocaine is the most potent, and therefore riskiest, form of cocaine. It comes in solid blocks or crystals, in colours from yellow to pale rose or white. People have been known to become addicted after using the drug just once.
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