Friday, June 1, 2012

Renewing my Passport

At the beginning of the year I realized my passport had expired and a trip to the local Home Affairs Department was imminent.
 Based on previous experiences of inefficiency and unpleasantness, it was not a prospect I relished.
 Memories of standing in long lines for an hour or more, only to have the window get shut in my face, just as it was my turn to be served, or being told I was in the wrong queue and "should be in that line over there" that hadn't moved for the last two days, are still vivid.
 For days I hesitated, trying to find a way around it. Perhaps I should use a service that does the queuing for me, I thought.
 "Don't be silly," said Mrs White Ou, always the voice of reason. "We're not millionaires and it's not as though you have much else to do any way."
 I couldn't argue on either of those points.
 "In any case, I've heard things are a lot better and while you're there, get renewal forms me and also for Kevin (my youngest son.)"
 And so it was that I found myself, early on a Monday morning, at the beginning of the year, at the offices of the Department of Home Affairs in Randfontein. The doors had just opened but the queues were already significant.
 I joined the line waiting to be served by a man behind the "Enquiries" counter.

Building true unity

 It is claimed that the Soccer World Cup, held in South Africa in 2010 will turn out to be that country's greatest-ever unifying force. While I agree the whole affair put us in party mood and, for a while, we forgot our differences and banded behind the national team, it cannot compete with the unifying experience of visiting a government department.
 Now that really builds true unity. People from all levels of society, who normally would not give each other the time of day, become bound by shared suffering, induced by inept officials and a system designed to screw you around.
 Linked in our common misery, we individuals rapidly become a common mind, swapping stories of previous experiences at the hands of not-so-civil servants.
 It becomes a competition to see who has been screwed-over worst.
 A coloured woman, with a toddler that hung on her skirt and peered at me from between her legs, struck up conversation.
 "How many times have you had to come back?" she asked.
 "It's my first, I just have to get some forms for a passport," I replied.
 "This is my fourth. They've been fucking me and my husband around every time. First it's this and then it's that. Then they want something else. My husband can't come any more, he's got to work. You know how hard jobs are to find these days..."
 By the time my position in the line had advanced two yards I knew pretty all there was to know about her family... how her husband enjoys a drink or six on the weekend, that she'd voted ANC but probably wouldn't do so again in the next elections and a lot more.
 If we'd thought of it, we probably would have exchanged telephone numbers and even ended up going on family outings together. (The last part is not true, I just said that to impress foreign readers.)
 She, in turn, knew about my kids, how difficult it was for them to find work and my solutions for South Africa's problems and world hunger.
 When it was my turn to be served at the "Enquiries" counter, I felt all warm and cuddly -- new South African!

Can't take them out of the building

 "I need three sets of passport application forms, please," I said to the guy manning the counter.

 "You'll need to fill them in here," he said. "We no longer allow people to take them out of the building."

 I was taken aback. Surely he was joking.

"But I need to get photographs done and I'm sure there are other details that must be filled in," I responded.

 But he was not joking.

 "There's a man outside who'll take the pictures and you only need complete a few details, the rest we'll get from the computer system."

 "But what about my wife and son?" I asked.

 He stared at me with a look usually reserved for people who lick their car seats to clean them. It was just so damned obvious and I couldn't see it.

 "They'll have to come in," he sighed.

 "But they work and can't take time off."

 "We've thought of that too," he replied, "that's why we're open on Saturday mornings."

 Behind me the people in the line were growing restless.

 But I was not easily swayed.

 "This is ridiculous," I huffed. "Tell me why I can't take the forms home, fill them in and bring them back."

 "Because people don't bring them back," he replied. "And, because of that, I get given a set number of forms in the morning and a reconciliation is done in the afternoon."

 "That is simply nonsense," I said, in the most indignant tone I could muster. "I'm not like that. I will fill them in and be back."

 I scooped up the forms and marched defiantly out of the building, expecting at any moment to be beaten senseless by the bemused security guards but nothing happened.

 Earlier this week, while watching television, Mrs White Ou suddenly turned to me.

 "Did you ever get those passport forms?" she asked.

 I thought for a moment.

 "I did," I replied. "They're sitting on my desk, I just haven't got round to giving them to you yet."

 "We really should fill them in," she said, and turned her attention back to the television.

If you enjoyed this short piece you may be interested in reading my new novel: "I Can Hear Them Singing Now" available in ebook format at Amazon.

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