In this place even the biblical Job would have snapped. The man known for his legendary patience would not survive a morning at the Maynard Mall offices of Home Affairs in Wynberg, Cape Town.
Everybody warned me about the endless waiting. What are my options?
“Simple,” said the security guard. “Be here at 5.30 tomorrow morning.”
My painter was always looking for odd jobs so I asked him to be there at that ungodly hour for some rands.
“I’m number 4 in line,” he whispered over the cellphone.
Shortly after opening hours at 08h00 I replaced the painter in the line and greeted the sour-faced woman at the semi-circle of an information desk.
She found me on the slow computer. “Go and pay.”
OK, “where exactly?”
Where everybody pays, apparently, before you even get any service.
I was number 4 in the line but the paypoint now already had 15 people and was growing because, you see, there was one old lady doing the job behind the counter while everybody else just did the South African thing; they waited.
A well-set woman was sweating heavily under the arms as she hung onto a three-month-old baby.
“Give me the baby, ma’am” and the relief showed all over her face.
With baby in hand, I started a public complaint session.
“Why is this not done online?”
The dead came to life. One complaint after the other.
“Go to Malmesbury Home Affairs,” I heard somewhere. “No, the roadwork delays will kill you,” an older man advised.
One sorry soul lamented, “here you must maar just wait”.
At the end of that payment queue, as if to mess with your mind, stood a massive Suggestion Box. I peered through the narrow slot. Of course, nothing inside.
The line grew longer.
A heavily pregnant mother stood next to me, shifting her load from one leg to the other in the hours of waiting.
An old woman sank into a chair partly marked Death and Marriage. These Home Affairs people were onto something.
“You think you’re done?” said the husband of the pregnant woman.
Having paid, you return to the miserable woman at Information who scribbles a number on your receipt.
I am number 81 for the photos; how is this possible when I was number 4 in the queue, I asked Grumpy. Eish, if looks could kill.
After another hour I approached the woman at one of the two photo booths.
“Please tell me how far I am down the queue?” I asked.
“You are 81 and I am only now at 40. So you have a long, long wait ahead of you sir.” At that point I gave up fretting and made a quick visit to a nearby shop.
As I came back in, barely 10 minutes later, I heard the dreaded announcement: “Number 82 to photo booth 2.”
My heart sank and I questioned the camera woman about how her projections made me lose my turn.
Back to Grumpy to “reactivate”.
Now I understand why you never find people smiling in those South African passport or ID photos. They’re just fed-up from all the waiting.
My complaint to the supervisor was revealing.
He explained something about shifts and doing all they can – even he was now a teller at one of the booths to help his colleagues cope. Shift two starts at 9h00 and then there will be two cashiers to speed things up.
I tell him it is 9h10 and there is still only one cashier and lots of people who had to take a day off from work – which means loss of income – just to get a smart card.
You learn a few things if you study a Home Affairs operation with an eye on organisational cultures and human behaviour. This is not simply a problem of resources but rather how you manage the resources available to you.
The best of personnel working under such persistent pressure – and criticism – eventually find themselves completely overwhelmed; they are victims of poor management and leadership.
And we really are not good at fixing simple things such as taking this entire process online.
No wonder people snap.
Like the Soweto man (2005) who took a person hostage to get his ID after three months of delays, and the Durban man (2009) who committed suicide because he could not find a job without the ID he kept waiting for.
The behaviour of Home Affairs, in consequence, is nothing more than a contempt for ordinary people.
Professor Jonathan Jansen is the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and is currently a resident fellow at Stanford University, US