My Morning at Home Affairs

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There is one way to kill the excitement of knowing that you are going on a once in a lifetime overseas holiday and that is the dread with knowing that you will have to renew your passport!  The thought of the hours waiting in line at Home Affairs will test the resolve of the most fervent patriot.

After weeks of using every excuse in the book, I knew that I could stall no more so on Monday morning I decided that the time had come. Deciding that I needed some moral support, I enrolled the help of my daughter who had to get her first ID card. Filled with dread, we warily made our way to the much maligned Randburg Home Affairs office. Our first impression did little to dispel our fears. We had to park on the pavement as the parking lot is being repaved. Mind you, this is not a moment too soon as the last time we visited this building, the parking lot resembled no-mans-land on the Western Front. The workers fixing the parking lot were typically South African; taking turns to rest on their picks while some rode on motorized rollers and others randomly waved red flags for no reason in particular.

DOES THIS HAPPEN ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD, I WONDERED?
The buildings remain a monument to the 1970s, which incidentally also looks like the last time any maintenance work was carried out. There are two old buildings set back on the property which look more like mine houses than like offices. The garden has been trodden flat and the picture is not improved by the addition of some old and broken kids’ playground toys cluttering up the area.

After navigating to the correct office by following the poorly produced signage stuck to dead trees and collapsing walls; you are met with the inevitable picture of a queue stretching outside of the door. Each new addition to the queue follows the same predictable ritual. Each person arrives with a look of dread on their faces before asking anyone within earshot whether this is the office for ID cards or passports. Within three and a half minutes everyone in the queue becomes an advisor to the latest addition and the newbie is met with “yes, and it is going to take hours” or “no, birth certificates are at the bottom building”; always said with a hint of a smirk.

Our choice of Monday morning was quite a good one. The queue was only just outside the door. Once I got inside I saw how the thing worked: you first reported to the Meeter Greeter and then on to the Cashier. Once you paid, you got called in to the photo booth and finally you got called up to the Counter. This was the finishing line, and the haste with which people left the building after they finished at the Counter was testament to the feeling of accomplishment that followed the completion of this epic journey.
After about 30 minutes I found myself standing in front of the Meeter Greeter. I wanted to hate her, but her smile disarmed me. Like all who had come before me, I was pro-actively hostile. I barked out the request for a new passport and she took it in her stride. She made sure that I had the correct supporting documents and sent me, armed with my lucky number 81 to the cashier.

MY DAUGHTER WAS NOT SO LUCKY!
She was not born in South Africa and needed a birth certificate, which could only be got in the other building. Wishing her a fond farewell; I decided that it was time for the bird to leave the nest. It was time to see if that expensive private school education had empowered her to deal with real life situations like getting a birth certificate from Home Affairs. I was sceptical.

I paid my R400 to the pleasant cashier and quite soon got called into the photo booth, where the two women interrupted their chatter to ensure that my picture was good and my electronic signature was recorded. After a mere 30 minute wait I was called up to the Counter. This was the moment to make good on all that natural cynicism. The system must surely fail. The man at the Counter was not only pleasant, he was efficient and the system that he used was great. Everything was captured electronically and after four minutes, I received a text message informing me that “we acknowledged the receipt of my application for a passport and I will hear from Home Affairs shortly”.

I left the building with a spring in my step and a song in my heart; but what of my daughter?

I went to the other building, and this wasn’t nearly as impressive. These poor people have to issue Gigaba’s Folly; the poorly thought out unabridged birth certificate for any overseas travel. Like all politicians, the minister clearly has not thought about the poor people who have to issue these certificates and the systems needed to do it. Despite all of the difficulties, the people who worked there knew what they need to do and through absolutely hard work they dealt with the angry mob. The man at the Counter even went so far as to journey with us to the big building to ensure that we got the correct certificate.

After receiving the certificate, we rushed back to the big building only to see the queue once again outside the building, but the delightful Meeter Greeter recognised us and made sure that we were resumed our rightful place in the head of the queue. Within five minutes we were done!My daughter and I were ecstatic, the ordeal was over and it had cost us three hours of our lives. But we couldn’t help feeling quite sad as well.  We were disappointed with ourselves that we expected to be met by disinterested people who didn’t know how to do their jobs. What we experienced was the total opposite; the people at the Randburg Home Affairs are good at their jobs and they get to deal with people at their worst.

SO WHY DO HOME AFFAIRS OFFICES ENJOY SUCH A BAD REPUTATION?

Well for starters; supply does not meet demand.
The number of counters and staff does not nearly satisfy demand for official documents. If they made me the minister, I would triple the size of the home affairs office. Why do taxpaying citizens need to queue for hours to get this service delivered?

Working conditions matter.
The offices in Randburg are a disgrace. For starters it is not even an office; it’s an old house. Put this vital service in a proper office building with adequate parking facilities. Why not put it in a shopping centre? If I were a property developer, I would offer Home Affairs a permanent, supermarket sized facility. It would improve the footfall of the shopping centre dramatically, keep standards up and solve the inevitable parking woes.

Supervision would help. These government services seem to operate without any supervision whatsoever. Management seems to hide away and nobody appears to coordinate breaks and lunch times. There is no visible person in charge. Take a leaf out of the books of banks and chain stores and have a visible manager’s office. We would all feel more comfortable if we could see some visible accountability.

We should all be better customers.
It would help if we didn’t arrive at offices like Home Affairs without our feeling of dread. We don’t need to behave as if this is a road rage situation and that the person on the other side of the counter hates us. It’s not as if we go to the bank or the cellphone shop with this kind of attitude.

So chill out and understand that these are just people doing a difficult job without the tools that are taken for granted in every other profession. McDonalds doesn’t expect its workers to use broken machinery and FNB doesn’t expect two counters to be sufficient for 100 clients. None of us would work in an old building without air-conditioning.

After this experience, I can see the South Africa of the future where our public servants are professionals and are not answerable to the whims of poorly advised politicians. After my trip to Home Affairs, I am just a little more hopeful for our future.

THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN BY: MIKE SHAM
Mike Sham is the owner of Vibrant Media as well as a speaker at the first ever Suits & Sneakers event which took place on 23 July, 2015. You can follow him on Twitter!

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