The South African government on Tuesday called Ryanair's language test for UK-bound travelers holding the country's passport a "backward profiling system."
Passengers are asked to take a test in Afrikaans — a language spoken by only 12% of the South African population, predominantly from the country's white minority.
What South Africa is saying
South Africa's Department of Home Affairs said it was puzzled by the test requirement, which Ryanair says is needed to validate documents. The department said the country already had a system in place to prevent the use of fake documents.
"We are taken aback by the decision of this airline because the department regularly communicates with all airlines to update them on how to validate South African passports, including the look and feel," the department said in a statement.
It said carriers had access to an "Advanced Passenger Processing" system that enabled them to screen travelers before departure. A 24-hour service for the authentication of South African passports was also available, it added.
"It is not clear to which extent the airline has used these services before resorting to this backward profiling system."
Those affected complained that the practice was discriminatory and reminiscent of the oppressive system in the country's apartheid-era discrimination against people of color.
How does Ryanair justify it?
Ryanair, which is Europe's largest airline by passenger numbers, said the "simple questionnaire" was due to a high prevalence of fraudulent South African passports.
"If they are unable to complete this questionnaire, they will be refused travel and issued with a full refund," a Ryanair spokesman said.
Afrikaans is the third most spoken of 11 official languages after Zulu and Xhosa. It was considered to be the country's official language until the end of apartheid in 1994.
'Not a good look'
The test requirement had already caused a storm on social media, with Twitter users calling it discriminatory.
"Ryanair is restricting the movement of South African people based on whether or not they speak the language of the white Afrikaans minority. Not a good look. Pretty racist," said one tweet.
"Forcing South Africans to answer questions in Afrikaans to prove their citizenship Is not only disgusting it's also racist," said another Twitter user.
The UK High Commission in South Africa tweeted that such language and general knowledge tests were "not a UK government requirement" for South Africans entering the United Kingdom.
rc/msh (Reuters, dpa, AFP)