‘I want to see the Maldives before I die’: Cancer stricken customer pleads for refund from Priority Escapes

Terminally ill Lindiwe Mzobotshe is pleading for a refund from Priority Escapes before it’s too late.

If Priority Escapes’ director, Francois Swart decided to show compassion by refunding the money for the Maldives holiday to at least one of his clients who never received the trip they paid for, it should be the Mzobotshe family from Johannesburg.

This is the general consensus of the group of victims who booked holidays with Swart before he declared he could not meet his financial obligations and went into business rescue.

Lindiwe Mzobotshe, the wife of Alfred Mozbotshe who initially booked the trip, is terminally ill.

According to the family, she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer earlier this year.

In an exclusive interview with The Citizen, Lindiwe said when the doctors told her that chemotherapy was no longer working and the cancer had spread to her spine and liver, they also told her that she did not have much time left.

“It was then that my husband cashed out all of our life savings and booked this trip to the Maldives. It was to be our last happy memory together,” she said.

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That trip, she said, was booked for September – something she had been holding on for.

She explained how, in her morose state after getting the news of her illness, she was scrolling through the web and a banner with the special for the trip popped up on her newsfeed.

“I had always, always wanted to go to the Maldives. This was a long-time dream of mine. When I saw the advert, I felt it was a sign – that I would fulfil this dream before I left this world. I immediately sent the link to my husband, Alfred,” she said.

Trip booked

Lindiwe said it was then that Alfred called the company and confirmed their booking.

“We paid in full in June,” she said.

“The great thing about it was that it was a direct flight. And because of my condition, I didn’t want to spend too much time flying,” she added.

But then, later that month, one of the representatives from Priority Escapes called Lindiwe to discuss the accommodation set-up.

“She told me the room that we booked had no windows and that there was no view. She asked for additional money, saying if we pay extra, we can get a room we a view. It felt like a red flag for me. At the time, I told her ‘no, its fine, I don’t mind a room without a view. I’m going to be out of the room most of the time anyway, we were just going to use it to sleep,’” Lindiwe explained.

She said that the representative accepted this and left them alone after that.

Then, on 12 August 2023, Lindiwe said she received an email she will never forget. “They cancelled the trip due to financial issues. I was so very disappointed. I was trying to protect my health and stay strong for this trip. It was something I was looking forward to,” she said.

Despite her disappointment, Lindiwe said she understood that it was a tough economy and these things happen.

“I tried to understand what Francois was going through. I said ‘okay, if that is the case, so be it, just refund me my money and we will move on from this’.”

However, Lindiwe has still not been refunded.

“It was all of our life savings. We can’t afford to redo this holiday anymore. I can’t believe they would do this to me,” she said, bursting into tears.

The disappointment has taken a toll on Lindiwe’s ailing health. She is appealing to Swart to refund their money or honour their trip. “All I wanted was to see the Maldives before I go. I’m holding onto the hope that I will still get to,” she said.

Marriage ceremony ruined

Marcelle Joubert’s experience narrates a loss beyond mere finances; the sanctity of one of life’s most cherished moments, her wedding day, was tarnished.

Marcelle had planned a destination wedding in the form of a small, private ceremony where she and her fiancé would exchange vows at one of Maldives’ revered resorts.

“I saved for months for this,” she told The Citizen.

Marcelle told how she was asked for a deposit but paid the full amount to secure the booking.

“Once it was all paid, I started to get excited about my special day. It was finally going to be a reality. We were doing a small ceremony at the resort and then a photoshoot out there,” she explained.

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But then, two weeks later, she received the email that crushed all her hopes and dreams.

“We got the email of Francois not being able to honour his financial obligation. We also got vouchers for the accommodation and the speedboats that were suppose to do our transfers. But when I called these places, they said ‘sorry, nothing was booked and no money had been paid’.

“We are just shocked and devastated. I can’t afford to redo this ceremony,” she said.

Permitting issues

Ross Dold was also one of Priority Escapes’ clients who had a special dream dashed.

Ross said he booked a trip for mid-June, in January, based on a recommendation from a friend who had enjoyed a trip to Maldives through the agency in 2022.

“I always wanted to experience the Maldives. You see the images and it’s just so beautiful and after hearing about a friend’s trip, I decided to save up and do it,” he said.

“I paid around R50 000 in full by the end of March.

“On the 10th of June, I was called by an agent saying that there was a ‘problem’ with the charter flight and we were given three options. The first was to fly via Dubai – for an extra R13 000, the second, we could get our money back, or the third, was to postpone by two weeks,” he explained.

Ross chose to postpone and changed his internal flights from Cape Town to Johannesburg to a later date.

“Two weeks later, I received a call from Francois himself to explain that there were ‘permitting issues’ with the charter flight and he gave me the same three options, except that the postponement was until October or November when the airline ‘would be a commercial flight, rather than a charter’,” he said.

“I chose the postponement and personally invoiced Priority Escapes for R2 000 for changes to our internal flights.

“This money was paid back to me, after a few follow up emails, and was received from Toptier Trading,” he said.

After this, Ross said the company went silent. It was only in August that he received communication from them again – to inform him the company could no longer honour its financial commitments and was closing.

“It was a lot of money to lose and what they have done to people is just not acceptable. We are hoping that he is brought to book soon,” Ross said.

After Swart sent the email on 12 August 2023 saying he couldn’t meet his financial obligations, a number of his clients laid a charge of fraud against him, which led to his Nedbank accounts being frozen.

But where is the money?

A group of disgruntled clients have told The Citizen that they received communication from Swart’s legal representative stating that since his accounts were frozen, he is unable to do any refunds.

Clients like Ross and Marcelle, who said they paid as early as March, are demanding to know where the money for the bookings went and why it was still “in his account” if the bookings with accommodation providers were supposed to already be confirmed.

“Surely we should be getting our refunds from the hotels themselves,” Marcelle asked.

The Citizen visited Swart’s offices and attempted to reach out to him via email to get comment, but Swart has not responded.

Police spokesperson Brigadier Brenda Muridili confirmed that two cases were opened in Gauteng from as early as 2021.

“The provincial head of commercial crimes investigation has now directed that the cases be brought to the province to be analysed and to determine the progress of the investigation,” she said.

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