Fear and Loathing at South African Home Affairs

South African Home Affairs

Johannesburg, 7.40am – The queue had been building since 6am. Snaking it’s way alongside the building, around the corner and down the street. The kind of queue you’d expect at a rock concert, not a government office.

Lydia had arrived shortly before 7 am. Our plan had been to get in line early so we could get the kids in and out quickly. We never imagined we’d have to queue for five hours before even getting into the office. While we waited, the mercury climbed, the weather office had predicted record temperatures that week. All we could do was take turns fetching bags of water from the nearby store. We had to keep the children hydrated and entertained; the last thing this situation called for was three snarling beasts.

The man in front of us – who had the foresight to bring a bucket, turned upside down as a makeshift chair – routinely hurled words of dissatisfaction at the officials, but they fell on deaf ears. The queue would take as long as it would take.

“They did a study; it takes 6 minutes to serve one person,” he said looking at us. “Why are they taking so long?”

“How long was the study done? Lydia said.

“When the new government took over,” he said.

I did some mental calculations: assuming the study was based on 6 mins per clerk – can we call them clerks, is that the politically correct term? Perhaps they are referred to as helpers. After all students became learners. Anyway, at best they, would have 10 people helping, if my math is correct, that’s about 800 people a day. Okay, take off 25% for coffee breaks, impromptu huddles, and humour failure, the real number is more like 600.

Another concern began to emerge, if we didn’t make it inside the office doors by 1pm, we would likely be set home, told to return the next day. I looked back at the queue, there must have been a few hundred people behind us. Most of these people would miss at least two days of work. Thousands of people, standing in queues across the country, everyday, must having be affecting South Africa’s already fragile economy.

Minutes before 1pm we were ushered into the office. Our first stop, the information booth just inside the entrance of the office.

“Afternoon, we are here to renew passports for our children,” Lydia explained to the lady behind the counter.

“ID,” she mumbled in response.

Lydia handed over her ID document.

“Birth certificates.”

“We don’t have their birth certificates with us, only their current passports. We’re here to renew their passports,” Lydia clarified.

“You need the birth certificate,” she said. “Come back tomorrow with the birth certificate.”

Lydia and I looked at each other in disbelief. Would we really need to queue for another 5 hours the next day? Having debated the matter for about 10 minutes, she suddenly suggested we could apply for a printout of the abridged birth certificates, which could then be used for the passport renewal application. Why had she not told us this in the beginning.

The birth certificate reprint person was on lunch, so we sat around for another 20 minutes, before a woman took up station at the desk.  We handed over our documentation and she tapped the computer,“You need go to the office where you registered for these, they can print them on the same day.”   

“But, that office in Plettenberg Bay?” Lydia said, desperately. “It’s over a thousand kilometres away, we’d have to fly the whole family there.”

“Then I must cancel these ones on the system and request new ones, they will take over two months to arrive. If you go there, you can have them the same day.”

Once again, we look at each other in total disbelief. “Can we just get the abridged reprints today, now?” I asked, trying to keep calm. She muttered something about a cancelation and walked off into an office.

A few minutes later man came up to the desk, “What can I do for you?” he asked. We explained the situation and he tapped the computer. “Eh, it looks like they have been cancelled,” he informed us, “I can print the abridged versions, but I will need to order the new unabridged certificates.”

“Yes, please! Just print the abridged ones.”

About forty minutes later – having had to scrounge around for five rand coins because the cashier had run out of change – we were handed three abridged birth certificates. And oddly one un-abridged certificate, which we had been told would take over two month to arrive.

Certificates in hand, we returned to the information desk. The whole experience had begun to feel like The Amazing Race. What challenge would they throw at us next? But, after carefully examining our freshly printed birth certificates, the helper handed us passport application forms and a series of numbered tickets: 313, 314, and 315. Finally, we were in the queue for passport renewals.

It was about 3pm, and I was surprised how well the children were handling the experience. Naturally they were somewhat restless, but nothing near the venomous lady outside the door.

“I’m a lawyer!” she shouted at the male security guard.

“Madam, you–”

“You, shut up! I’m not talking to you!” she shouted at the female security guard.

“Do you know how long people have been standing here!”

Being a lawyer, one would have expected she’d know screaming at these people would get her nowhere. She was on their turf. They endured this kind of abuse all day, every day. They’d heard it all before. This was just another crazed white woman, here pony tail wagging madly, squirting venomous abuse. Stare at her vacantly and eventually she’ll go away.

Inside, things were moving faster. The lady at the photo machine, who had been wandering around aimlessly, had returned to her station and photographed the kids. At 4pm we finally entered the home stretch, it couldn’t be much longer now–or could it? An hour and a half later our numbers were finally called; each ticket to a different desk. Lydia and I enlisted Courtney, our eldest, as a courier, shuttling documents between the 3 helpers.

“Dad, the man needs your ID book,” she said.

“I don’t have one of those, here’s my passport, it has my ID number in it,” I said, handing it to her.

She ran off only to return a short while later. “Dad, the man says you have to give him your ID book.”

I followed her over and explained to the helper that I don’t have a South African Identity book, only a passport, due to the fact that I have been living outside the country for 5 years. He explained that without an identity book, we would not be able to renew the passport renewals.

Once again, Lydia and I looked at one another in disbelief and, this time, desperation.

“You can come back tomorrow morning and apply for a temporary ID,” one of the helpers suggested.

“You mean I have to stand in the queue again tomorrow?” I retorted.

“If you come at 5am you will be at the front,” he offered.

Fortunately Lydia was still thinking clearly, “can we bring a certified copy of his ID?”

“Yes,” Golden, the head helper, replied. “If you have a copy of the ID you can bring it as an amendment to the application. We will put the application on hold until you bring the document.”

“Is there any way we can avoid the queue tomorrow,” I asked.

“Tell security you are here to submit an amended document. They will let you in,” he replied.

I sensed this would not be the case. So we pressed him for some kind of receipt, something to confirm our story when challenged by security the next morning. Eventually, he stamped our documents with an official date stamp and sent us on our way.

The next morning Lydia arrived at 6am. By the time the kids and I arrived at 7.30am, tempers were already heated. Security had instructed people with stamps to join the regular queue, almost inciting a full blown riot. However, when they realized they were outnumbered by about 50 to 1, they quickly change their approach.

We entered the office of Infernal Affairs at 8.30am and were issued numbers: 1, 2, and 3. It wasn’t long before they were called, each to a separate desk, and we handed over my photocopied identification. Luckily there were no further complications and we manage to leave before 9.30am.

During our visit to Home Affairs, we noticed a number of signs plastered on the walls, one of which stood out:

Our values are Integrity, Patriotism, Professionalism and being people centred.

I can’t say that I witnessed a single one of those values from any of the staff, not even patriotism. On discovering I held dual citizenship, one of my helpers asked if I could help him get another passport so he too could leave the country.

But the problem isn’t the helpers at Home Affairs, I’m sure the majority of them are wonderful people, who are simply disillusioned with their workplace. A stuffy office with only one visible air conditioning unit, uncomfortable, damaged chairs, and a computer system that fails in the first couple of hours of the morning.

Meanwhile the countries president upgrades his home to the tune of $23 million, ministers travel business class, and have inflated car allowances. You can’t help wonder, why isn’t the money invested where the country needs it, in places like Home Affairs.