Arrested overseas

Contact the closest South African Mission

A number of South African citizens are arrested abroad every year. It can be a difficult experience.  The purpose of this document is to provide you with guidance on what you should do if you are arrested whilst outside South Africa.

Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (1962), which is the generally accepted standard for all countries, persons who have been arrested outside their own country must have access to their consular representative.  If you should find yourself in this situation, you must immediately request the authorities to allow you to contact the South African mission in that country.

Consular staff are there to assist you. They are not judgmental. It is the task of the local courts to decide on your innocence or guilt. Even if you are found guilty, consular officials will continue to assist you and you should not feel embarassed in your dealings with the mission.

What Consular Officers Can Do For You

If you are arrested, the consular officials can:

  • Make contact with you as soon as possible after notification of your arrest
  • Give you some general information about the legal system of the country you are being held in. Information may include details on legal aid (if available) and prosecution, remand, bail and appeal procedures, so that you will understand what is happening and be aware of your rights,.
  • Give you a list of lawyers. (The Mission cannot make recommendations as to which lawyer you should choose).
  • Arrange for your next of kin to be notified of your arrest, if you wish. (If you do not want your family notified, your request will be respected and the mission will withhold information about your situation from your family and friends. You should however, consider the distress and uncertainty your whereabouts and/or situation may cause your family. The disadvantages of their being kept in ignorance of your position far outweigh concerns you may have of their feeling on the matter.  There is also the possibility of your family finding out about your situation from media reports in South Africa).
  • Assist in making arrangements to receive funds from your family.
  • Ensure that any medical or dental problem you may have is brought to the attention of the prison doctor/dentist.
  • Continue to visit you. The frequency of visits will depend on various factors such as the length of sentence, the distance of the prison from the mission, and so on. Most importantly, visits will depend on the mission obtaining local authorities' approval and prison clearance prior to any official visit, as well as the availability of funds.
  • Assist in making banking or other travel arrangements so that monies deposited by your family or others reach you.

What Your Consular Officers Cannot Do For You

  • Get you out of prison
  • Obtain legal advice on your behalf. Dealings with your lawyer is a private matter.
  • Pay for a lawyer's services, instigate court proceedings on your behalf or interfere in local judicial procedures to get you out of prison or get an early trial.
  • Obtain a better treatment for you than is provided for locals or other nationals.
  • Obtain bail for you.
  • Pay your fines.
  • Conduct investigations related to an offence.
  • Support you financially in prison. If you are unable to pay essential costs yourself or earn money by working in the prison, you will have to contact you family or friends for financial support.

If you are a dual national in the country of your other nationality the assistance which South African consular representatives can give you may be limited.  That is even if you are a South African citizen but you also possess the nationality of the country in which you have been detained or arrested. It is possible, however, that the local authorities will allow consular representative to assist you.  You should ask for access to your consular representatives in such circumstances and press the prison, court of police authorities for such access to the greatest extent.

What Your Can Do For Yourself 

There are a number of things that prisoners in foreign jails can do to help themselves Prisons sometimes provide opportunities for foreign prisoners to learn the local language and this should improve the quality of your life in prison by enabling you to communicate with fellow prisoners and with the prison guards.

However, in some countries there are very few, if any, opportunities for prisoners to access education material, work or even use the telephone. Prison conditions and approach to management of prisoners vary with the country and culture and different conditions and rules apply for different prisons.  


Your life in prison will be more usefully spent if you can take advantage of educational facilities. You could write to educational institutions for information on courses or use the prison library (if there is one). If you cannot obtain the materials you need inside the prison, ask the prison staff to get them for you.


Most people find that work helps pass the time fore quickly. You should explore this option energetically with the prison authorities, especially if it provides you with an income. 


Make sure that you know how many letters you are allowed to send. Sometimes remand prisoners can send more, It is important that you get your affairs in order and write as many letters as possible before your trial.


Many prisons provide facilities for prisoners to make telephoce calls. You should find out about the rules, especially those which enable you to contact your family and friends.

Your Health

If you have a health problem you should inform the prison authorities and ask to see the prison doctor. If you are worried. If you are worried about your health, for example if you are HIV positive, or think you may be HIV positive, you are advised to discuss this with the doctor and the consular representative of the mission.

Information for Relatives of South African Prisoners Abroad

You may find the situation of your relative or friend who is imprisoned abroad distressing. It may also bring hardship for you, especially if you have been relying on that person for support and/or they now rely on you for financial assistance while in prison abroad. 

While the mission and departmental staff will do all they can to assist you, all they ask in return is that you respect their efforts to assist you and understand that their primary client is the person who has been arrested or is in prison. It may be that the jailed person will not want the Department to convey information to you.  If the Department cannot do something that you would like it to do, its officers should explain why this is so and what it is that you can expect from them.

A brief overview is outlined below to provide family and friends of a detainee with a clearer understanding as to the functions and responsibilities of the Department of Foreign Affairs and missions abroad on assistance that can or can not be rendered.

The role of the Department of Foreign Affairs plays from the time a South African is arrested abroad to the time they are sentenced, and while they are in prison serving their sentences.

The South African Mission abroad ensures that the next of kin of the detainee have been informed of the person's arrest, according to the wish of the detainee;

The Mission will endeavour that the detainee is accorded a fair and just trial by personal appearances at court hearings where circumstances permit

The Mission will ensure that the detainee has access to legal representation, in accordance with the local laws and customs.