Monday, 10 November 2008

Citizen of South Africa? Your Govt. thinks you are crap

Many foul fruits fell from the apartheid tree, but among the nastiest, and the one that still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of millions, was the poisoned apple of worthlessness. Many of those who had no choice but to chew on the apple are still suffering, a decade and a half after freedom arrived in South Africa, from its toxic, dehumanising effects: diminished self-worth, feelings of powerlessness, and a sense of shoulder-shrugging resignation: 'Well, I'm crap, and I deserve this treatment, so what's the point of complaining?'

These thoughts have turned over in my mind many times over the past few weeks, during several visits to Home Affairs and Vehicle Licensing Centres.

It would be an understatement to say that I am infuriated at the contempt shown by these agencies towards South Africa's citizens.

And I'm aghast at, and admiring of, the extraordinary tolerance and patience of ordinary people sitting in long, hot, frustrating queues. Not once, in a total of about twelve hours of queueing during the last seven days, have I heard anyone raise a complaint, not even a squeak, about the disgraceful, idle service dished out by these state agencies. No, they sit patiently, with folded arms, apparently resigned to the fact that they deserve nothing more than to be treated like shit.

There are frustrated comments, but always expressed sotto voce: 'Look at that lazy cashier. He's sitting there doing nothing.' And: 'Why is there only one till open?'. 'These chairs are dirty, and I want to go to the toilet, but I can't lose my place in the queue.'

I feel so disappointed - no, brokenhearted - that the ANC government that promised so much, and for which I voted for so eagerly, has failed so miserably to treat its citizens with a modicum of respect and kindness.

If that statement annoys you, Mr or Ms Minister, okay. But, before you denounce me, please go, without your bodyguard and your three-car convoy, and spend three to six hours at any office of the Department of Home Affairs, or any vehicle or licensing department. Okay, I'll make it easy for you: go to vehicle centre in Marlborough, Johannesburg, which is arguably the most luxurious of all Jo'burg agencies dealing with the public.

Take your place in a long queue which leads to a disinterested security guard lounging, as if he's on the beach in the Seychelles, at an old, chipped, stained desk. Note the torn-in-half cardboard cartons that serve as containers for the various forms that need to be filled in. Observe the filthy carpets, the stained chairs, the windows covered in old sticky tape and half-torn, drooping notices, which all contradict themselves.

Do have a wee and a snack before you arrive, because there are no toilets, no vending machines, nothing, in fact, that would indicate that you are a valued citizen of this country. Don't hold your breath for signposts, or any indicator as to where you should queue: you're clever, right? So work it out yourself, by trial and error.

Now allow the guard to misdirect you for a few hours. Once you finally make it to the room with six eye-testing stations, note that only one machine is in action. This machine is manned by one staff member who is too busy to process your application, because she's having a chat to the White Supervision Madam, who is about to go on a coffee break.

Next to her, at an old chipped desk, is the fingerprint and photograph executive, who is going for the regional finals in Gum-Chewing and Eye-Rolling. Please do not expect her to return your greeting: this is against office policy.

If you manage to actually get your file, please take your place in the 'queue'. This term is used loosely. It's not really a queue; it's a test of your patience and integrity. You will be approached, several times over, by burly men who whisper into your ear that they will, for a small fee, fast-track you to the front of the queue. If you are made an offer, I suggest you take it up, in the interests of research. Willingly and trustingly hand your ID book and a crisp note over to these strangers, and they will be back in under seven minutes, with your license. [Ok, maybe eight minutes: give them a break; they have to locate the person they're bribing.] Don't worry about being spotted doing illegal transactions: the staff here at the Marlborough station suffer from various degrees of blindness.

If you decide, like most of the good people in the queue, to actually sit it out and wait your turn, well, good on you, but I hope you have your knitting and the newspaper with you, because you are in for a very long wait.

Luckily, you are in good company. Your voters.

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MzHartz said...

Wait, South Africa? Are you sure you're not describing the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) in Indiana, USA?

Sadly, it sounds like it's the same all over the world. To get a license or registration, you must sit in the gateway to hell, filled with grungy linoleum, broken plastic chairs that have been there since 1973, and people who don't understand the idea of personal space. When your turn is finally called, the demon behind the desk rolls it's eyes and tells you that you need yet another form, a slaughtered goat, and the moon must be waning before you can get your registration. And you'll go home to get it, just to rush back to the portal to the underworld, back at the end of the line.

Juno said...

Thanks, mzharts. I suppose I am mildly comforted by that fact that it's not only South Africa's government that despises its citizens. No, wait, I'm not. How can this level of service be tolerated? Where, for Pete's sake, are the managers?

Muriel said...

One of the pleasures of living in a small town is govt depts that are generally more efficient because they just don't have the same volume to handle. That doesn't stop spectacular screw-ups, though, like the woman ahead of me in the queue to fetch her ID book and who then pointed out that the photograph in it wasn't of her (it was of a black man; she was a white woman). The powers-that-be shrugged and said, Sorry, we can't do anything about that, you're going to have to reapply. And the woman turned out to have come all the way from the city to our small town because she'd heard the process here was quicker and easier here!

tonypark said...

Oddly, my most efficient experience in registering a vehicle happened in Zimbabwe, where we garage our Land Rover.

I imported it from the UK and to do this had to have it assessed by the revenue service and pay customs duty; get a police clearance; get a vehicle licence at the post office; register the vehicle at the local council; organise and pay for insurance; and, finally, get number plates made and fitted.

I did the whole lot in one provincial town- Bulawayo - at various offices in the vicinity of four city blocks. The whole thing, from start to finish, took about six hours, with never more than about half an hour spent in any one queue at any one time.

(The longest delay was the police clearance. It was raining and the detective from CID didn't want to come out to the car park in the rain. I left him for a while to do some more of the process and returned a little later. It was still raining, but when I offered to hold my umbrella over him he cheerily came out and did the checks in the middle of a downpour).

Leaving aside the fact that my vehicle would not even pass a roadworthy test in my very anally retentive and bureaucratic home country of Australia, there is NO way I could have done all that in a day in Australia. I've estimated it would take three or four at the least, with days of waiting for processing in between.

The reason Zimbabwean bureaucracy was (on a good day) so efficient was simple: no computers.

There were lots of forms to fill out that needed to be stamped, but nothing was recorded, inputted, scanned or processed electronically.

To re-register my vehicle each year now takes approximately 15 minutes (and about US$10) at the local council office near where the vehicle is garaged.

Without a doubt, my worst experiences with bureaucracy in Africa have been in South Africa. When they've been speedy and joyous it has invariably been because some senior official has spied a couple of tourists in troubtle and gone out of their way to render assistance.

That probably goes back to the root of your post, Juno, that the government is not adverse at all to treating it's own people like crap.