After one futile attempt to do some unavoidable business last week, I again spent the whole of this morning at that probably most hellish of institution, the Home Affairs office, pursuing a document without which you might as well be non-existing in this country. Standing there for many hours, I was already thinking what I was going to write about the Kafkaesque experience I shared with perhaps a few hundred people – women and men, young and old, sick and healthy, some with babies on the back, others on crutches – all of us essentially equal in the contempt that the civil “servants” in that institution must be feeling towards the citizens who are forced by law to seek their assistance.
Since the experience I shared with my son at Home Affairs is by no means unique to the two of us, I am wondering who one would have to address when writing about it. For sure, every person born in this country at some stage or the other will be confronted by the abuse and caprice of the paid-by-us officers who are manning and “womaning” that office.
So while I am thinking who to address this to, a bit more detail about the proceedings of the morning: In anticipation of what was coming, I made sure that we had all the correct and original documents with us when we left the house sometime between seven and eight. Having managed to beat the morning traffic, we arrived at the said office to find that there were already long queues waiting. It not being 8h00, doors remained tightly shut while more people joined the queues.
By half past eight the doors were still shut, but one person started directing – no separating in a manner not unlike that of a cattle handler – the crowds into their appropriate enclosures. Those wanting death certificates to the outmost left, those looking to replace lost ID cards to the right, those who have to register the births of the newborns, somewhere in the middle and so on. And we, patiently, like cattle or sheep, moved into our appropriate pens.
It emerged that this officer or civil “servant” (CS from here on) was responsible for the queue to which we were “directed” for he started collecting documents from the front. After a short scrutiny of every document, said CS started an interrogation practically of every persons wanting to be served; (imagine a booming voice, raised to drown out all background voices, very angry right from the onset.) “What is this!?” (Soft answer from the one interrogated) “Who are you talking to? (mumble again from the interrogate) “Look at me while you are talking!” “Don’t come and look for your document with us! Go back to …” And so the abuse continued. Our queue was quickly reduced to about 20 persons as a direct result of this onslaught, intimidation and even insults that many had to endure.
We remained steadfast in our confidence that our documents were in order and that there was no reason to leave our place in the now much shorter line. Within a relatively short while, my son was also seated opposite another CS who was filling in requisite forms. After which he was pushed into another row, this time to be finger printed, measured and shipped off again. Still confident that we will be out of there soon, we dutifully and obediently – like everybody else – sat down and waited for the next station.
About three hours into the process, we are cattle prodded through another door. Not one of the “prodders” volunteered any information. Those queuing who were brave enough to ask for anything received a bark, but no answer. So we did what we were told and waited for our turns. Except, no-one moved in the prodded-to direction. While people kept on joining the back of the line, the front came to a complete deadlock. No-one knew where to go, what to do, who to wait for and most importantly who to ask for any information. The only information provided was “You must wait!” At one point everyone was sent out of the room where they were sent to only half an hour before and back into the first “waiting” room.
Almost four hours later, the day was heating up, the room was completely crowded with people sitting and standing shoulder to shoulder, sweating, smelling, coughing, sneezing, babies crying, all just waiting. By about 11h30, the long wait seemed to be over. For a woman walked into the room which by now was bursting out of its seams with people and body smells. She carried a big black case which concealed the state of the art camera for which everybody was so patiently waiting. It took her an additional half an hour to find the right cable, to set up her machine and to call for the person who was the very first person to enter through the doors of that office just before half past eight that morning. I could not help but uttering a relieved “Yuhooo!” For finally, the queue started moving again.
The thing I learned at that office –and not for the first time – is that anybody who might be counting on the sympathy – or empathy of any of the CSs in the home affairs office, must put it out of their mind. Even if you are there looking to certify the death of a loved child, mother, or spouse. You are considered an inconvenience to the officer placed there ostensibly to help you. For an institution whose vision is to provide “Population register and immigration management that is rated the best in the world” (gleaned from the internet,) I would say, first, teach your officers to respect the people they are supposed to be serving. Without this, my dear Honourable Minister of Home Affairs, they are turning your core values, namely respect, professionalism and transparency – if I remember correctly – into a joke.