I am utterly disappointed. A recent visit to a Durban-based home affairs office proved to be a rude awakening about government priorities. I will not state where this office is, simply because I had no issues with the staff or building itself. Quite the opposite.
We arrived a tad late by home affairs standards; with people queuing from 3am, our 11am arrival was a far cry. But, we were going to give it a try. The task at hand was to obtain my son’s unabridged birth certificate. He was born in 2010, before the regulation was being phased in. So although we did everything by the proverbial book then, now we needed to comply with the new rules. My husband was convinced that there would not be a long queue for this task. Turns out he was correct.
A quick chat with a friendly and helpful worker at the front door, and we were ushered into a short queue with the necessary forms to fill in. It can’t be that simple, I thought.
The truth is I felt guilty. I walked past people who had queued for hours, and were still standing outside. Some had brought camping chairs. Others moved with their umbrellas as the intensity of the sun moved. And there we sat, inside the air-conditioned building. Yes, the air conditioners work. They work well. There is good seating too. And it’s clean.
Sitting there, waiting, we all smile at each other and soon enough the conversations start to flow. It’s what South Africans do naturally. We unite in adversity. Within those doors; race, status and class have no place. We all feel the pain of the 80 year old man and his wife who have queued since 3am, only to reach the front of the queue at 1pm. We all feel the pain of the family of five, two adults and three children, who are here for the third time, hopeful that it will be their last. We all feel the pain of the lady that storms in and demands to be attended to as she cannot afford to take another day off from work.
Yes, there is an attempt to streamline the process with separate queues. But, clearly it isn’t working. Even though some applications can be completed online, people still have to appear in person to have their pictures taken. It means joining that long queue.
“Why does everything take so long? Tell us what is the problem so we can help make your job easier?” asks a concerned lady. The home affair official replies politely, almost in a hushed tone, “We have only two working computers. The system is slow. And sometimes it is offline.”
And with that, our hearts sink. So, the Department of Home Affairs expects hundreds of people to queue daily but provides only two working computers. This, from a department that has introduced technology for smart card identity documents but can’t get its own computers or system to work optimally. Even fraudsters are a step ahead. They have the technology to get into the country with “legal” documents. They get “legally” married to South Africans without their knowledge. But, the department cannot process these documents for legal, tax paying citizens, speedily.
Surely, the department cannot be that clueless and cruel, I say to myself.
My son’s documents are processed. I am somewhat relieved. I return home, but the questions linger. So, I do some research.
When Home Affairs was re-positioned in 2017, the then Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize admitted, “In spite of introducing smart ID cards, we still have largely out-of-date technology….Even in the 179 offices where we have installed fully digital systems, there are often long queues because the network is often down. I commit that “we will do better” and show you our plans. ”
A year later, with a new minister at the helm, the department has not done any better or shown citizens anything new. What it does show to citizens is that the status quo remains. It’s dis-heartening. In a distressed economy, citizens cannot afford to lose a day’s work. But, they do. They are forced to, to queue at home affairs offices, along with the elderly and sick.
“Batho Pele”… putting the people first is meant to be the guiding principle for every public service office in South Africa. At home affairs, the officials displayed this with distinction. They were exemplary. I call them the saving grace of a disastrous situation. But further at the top, where is the concern for the people?
These are the people who are working to build a country hit by scandal upon scandal and new cases of corruption almost every week. Forget about paying back the money. Government does not care enough to pay back the people with an efficient home affairs system. As we near the 25 year milestone of our democracy, make no mistake, progress on this front has been lagging behind.
This is one department that seriously needs to get its affairs in order.
*After I wrote this post this week, the Department of Home Affairs revealed that it plans to roll out the issuing of smart card identity documents at banks before the end of March. The department says this could help ease the delays and long queues.
Well, only time will tell…