Thursday, 8 May 2008

The unabashed avarice and arrogance of the US Embassy in South Africa (and probably elsewhere)

Regular readers of salmagundi might remember my raging post about the hoops I would have to jump through to secure a holiday visa to the States for my 17-year-old daughter. It began with the frankly greedy requirement of buying a PIN number from Pick’n’Pay, just in order to phone the Embassy and make an appointment.

Which I did, and everything has gone downhill from there. The man I spoke to at the Embassy gave me a list of requirements, each more ridiculous than the last: an unabridged South African birth certificate (which no South African citizen actually ever needs for anything else, including quite important things like buying land or getting married); a letter from the school principal; letters from both mother and father; a full itinerary; etc. I sat with my diary and a pen and listed the requirements as he gave them to me, so I am absolutely sure that I didn’t miss anything (about which more later).

After he’d given me this ridiculously extensive list, he then deigned to make an appointment for my daughter (because the person applying for the visa has to have a personal interview at the Embassy before a visa application can be considered). It was for 7.30 this morning. I told the man that we live over 100km from the Embassy but he was immovable: 7.30am was the only time-slot available.

In the run-up to this morning’s appointment, I jumped through many hoops. I applied for and eventually received an unabridged birth certificate for my daughter (not without endless frustrating phone calls to Home Affairs, who refused to fast-track the application for me; it finally arrived yesterday, in the nick of time, and I had to drive to the next town and queue for an hour to collect it). I got letters from the principal and from my daughter’s absent father. I wrote a letter myself. I checked the itinerary, the validity of her passport, the correctness of the air ticket, etc. And by this morning, when we left home at 5.30am, I was sure we were all set.

It took us over two hours to reach the Embassy through morning traffic. When we got there, we were told by the guard at the gate – who was lording it over a huge, almost empty carpark – that visa applicants weren’t permitted to park on the Embassy grounds. Instead, we had to drive to a nearby shopping centre, park there, then walk the +-1km up the hill to the Embassy building. (What the hell is that about??!)

This we did, and when we got there for a second time, we were directed to a long queue of about 40 people – all standing outside in the drizzly cold. I asked the man in front of me if he was queuing for a visa. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and I’m really pissed off. What’s the point of telling us to be here at 7.30am if you’re only going to queue for the next two hours?’ Quite.

As is the way when you’re standing around in the rain with a bunch of strangers and know you’re going to be there for quite a while, we all got chatting. There wasn’t a person who wasn’t in fits of fury about the list of requirements and the numerous roadblocks put in the way of ordinary people trying their damnedest to organise a simple holiday. ‘I’m travelling with my son,’ said one woman, ‘and they wouldn’t give us an appointment together – or even on the same day! I’m here today and he has to come tomorrow.’

But it was only when someone said, ‘And non-standard visa photographs? I mean, they haven’t made it difficult enough for us already?’ that I went cold (well, colder) all over.

‘Visa photographs?’ I asked. This hadn’t been on my list of requirements, given to me by the Embassy official over the phone two months before. (Perhaps this was stupid of me – of course a visa requires a photograph! – but last time I applied for a visa to the States, I didn’t need a pic; they just stamped the visa into my passport then and there.)

‘Quick,’ I said to my daughter, ‘let’s run back down to the shopping centre. I’m sure there’s a photo place somewhere there.’

‘No, no,’ said someone else. ‘They’re not standard passport or ID pics. They’re 5x5cm, completely non-standard for South Africa, and only a few places do them. And they have to be in full colour.’

‘And you can’t smile, and you have to have your ears showing!’ added someone else, and there were incredulous murmurs of agreement.

So already we were buggered – clearly, we wouldn’t be getting the visa this morning – but out of interest I asked a fellow would-be-applicant to show me her list of requirements. According to her list, this is what was missing from my package of documents: three months’ worth of bank statements from me, proof that I hold a mortgage bond, proof that I had already paid the R1 000+ for the visa into a specified account (I had the amount in cash – ‘No, they don’t accept cash,’ the woman told me) and R40 in cash for postage. Also, an extensive form of personal information which had to be downloaded from the Internet, printed out and filled in – but which I in any case wouldn’t have been able to obtain as the website address given to me by the Embassy official on the phone was invalid! (I couldn’t phone back to get the right or another address, of course, because they don’t answer the phone unless you have a prepaid one-time-use-only PIN number to enter, and I’d already used mine – it’s a ghastly Catch 22.)

‘And you do have your letter from your employer?’ she asked.

‘No, but I’ve got a letter from my daughter’s principal.’

‘Well, that’s okay then,’ she said. ‘My husband had to get a letter from his employer…’

She was interrupted by someone else. ‘You mean you’re here to get a visa for your husband?’

‘Yes, why?’ asked the woman.

I tried not to look smug (as this was, apparently, one of the few things I’d actually got right). ‘Your husband has to come for the interview himself, in person,’ a few people said in unison.

The woman said a very, very rude word and not one person was offended by it. We all knew just how she was feeling.

My daughter and I walked back down to the shopping centre and found a coffee shop. We were drinking our cappuccinos in silence – I was thinking, with a sinking heart, of having to gather the additional documentation, get another PIN number from Pick’n’Pay, make another appointment, and repeat the whole depressing crack-of-dawn-and-morning-traffic exercise all over again – when my daughter said to me, ‘You know what, Mom? I actually don’t want to go to America any more. They don’t want me, I don’t want them.’

‘You sure?’ I asked her (trying not to look as delighted as I felt).

‘Ja,’ she said. ‘I’d rather go to England. At least they don’t make us feel like terrorists before we even set foot there.’

So I’ve cancelled my daughter’s tickets to America (the cancellation fee was staggering, but at this stage I don’t actually care) and she’s going to England instead.

America can just go fuck itself.

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Anonymous said...

Fully agree with you. You made the right decision. I actually made it to NY, and went through hell through customs. Got through eventually, but not after they break down your self esteem.

Muriel said...

Thanks for the confirmation! I've just got an email from my cousin in NY who asked if the problem wasn't perhaps 'SA red tape' - a not unreasonable assumption, given that the USA is, ahem, First World, and we are a Third Wordl/First World crossover country. Well, it isn't. Not only that, she says that American citizens can apply for visas online (including to Australia, which is particularly strict), then you just fetch your visa at the airport before you leave. Sounds civilised, doesn't it? (Also, can anyone enlighten me please: is SA a known Al Quaeda stronghold?)

Juno said...

I will never, ever moan about Home Affairs after reading this post, Mur.

How insulting and degrading.

I really admire you for sticking it out for as long as you did. And a big kiss to your darling daughter for giving the embassy the middle finger.

meggie said...

Your daughter is a very sensible girl! Up the USA.

Muriel said...

To everyone who has responded to this post offline -- thanks again for the confirmation! It seems that I am definitely not alone in being driven to distraction by the bizarre requirements for a US visa, and I have heard numerous horror stories about what happens when you finally land in the good ole US of A too. Incidentally, I booked my daughter's ticket to England on Friday -- it's already been issued, and that's the extent of the red tape I'm going to have to cut through to send her there. What a pleasure.