Some responsibilities are mundane, painful and humbling for all South Africans. A visit to Home Affairs is one such deed that fills most with dread – even bishops. But while the frustration of long queues and a sense of helplessness are common, Bishop José Luís Ponce de León reminds us that the inconvenience of admin is far more impactful on the most vulnerable South Africans and that while our experiences of frustration are shared, the outcomes are often very different.
It was time to renew my South African passport. I was running out of pages; just crossing between Swaziland and South Africa – something I do regularly – means four stamps on a return trip. And despite having my first “maxi” passport with more pages than the normal one, all too soon I need to return to Home Affairs.
Arriving the office located closest to me, I was met with an already long queue of about 70 people, all outside under the sun. I was not sure if I was unlucky or if it was always like this. It was also difficult to know how long it would take to actually reach the door of the building and how long the queue inside the building was. We stood watching a few come out and see a lucky few go in. Information was lacking and it appeared that there was only one queue to both apply for passports – a long process – and collect – a much shorter process.
I decided to wait and see, but shortly after my decision to stick it out, someone from the office came out and announced that the system was down. I believe no one would be able to say why it was down or how long it would take to be back. We would all have to leave. These experiences are not unique.
A heavy storm looked on its way too, so I drove to another Home Affairs' office an hour away. The experience was the same. Long queues, no one able to say how long it could take to go in, let alone how long it would take once inside. I decided to return to Swaziland. The day was gone and nothing was achieved.
A week later I tried in another two places. In the first one I was told that I had to get my name on a list. Only 150 names are put on this list and that is the limit of how many people will be assisted that day. I was too late. The list was closed and I would have to return on another day. Living in Swaziland makes no difference. One probably would have to sleep there the night before as our borders only open at 7am.
I travelled to yet another office where I was allowed to queue. I was worried that it was already 11am, but I was told I would be able to go in. The queue seemed shorter than in the other places, but that's never been an indicator of how long such a process might take. Four hours' later I was still queuing. I started to worry and I wasn't the only one. We understood the office would close and we would have to return another day. But instead of the doors being closed in our faces, we were finally let in.
While I was frustrated, it was hard to see mothers with babies, widows and the vulnerable spending all that time in the hot sun. People do try to help each other. I saw a girl tell a young mother with a baby to sit down because she would keep her place (for free, in case you wonder). Those selling drinks and food had more than reasonable prices and were not an extra burden on those queuing. I shared my umbrella with two more people to be protected from the sun. After some time one offered to hold it for us.
But tensions are easily flared. People need information and the person at the door often does not have it. People then get angry and the person at the door feels challenged and becomes defensive. The exception was my final place where the man seemed to know things well and tried his best to make people understand. He would even distinguish between the troublesome in one queue and the well behaved (us!) in the other.
Even inside, the personnel was friendly even though they were tired. They seemed to be trying their best to move things forward. The information was clear and precise. By the time it was my turn they had seen 180 people. After four attempts, I was finally making progress.
It was one of the few times I could be “no one” and share the experiences of many others. And despite having to visit four different offices, sharing the frustration of standing in seemingly endless queues, at the end I was still privileged to have a car to go back home (even if that meant driving 300 km). Others were praying to have transport to go back to places which are one or two hours' away. I also did not need to ask my boss for another day off from work. But I felt really powerless, not knowing what I would do if I would not be allowed in and had to drive back again.
I had, of course, plenty of time to reflect on the way we welcome people when they come to our offices in the chancery, the cathedral, Caritas… It was one of the few times when I could experience being on the other side of the desk.
The experience has not ended yet. I must be back in one or two weeks' time. This means driving again another 300 km and queuing for another two hours at least, to collect it.
This article was originally published on Bhubesi.blogspot.co.za