Friday, January 16, 2009

Welcome home!

I returned to Cape Town on Monday of this week, after being home in Canada for a month over the summer holidays. During that time my life here in South Africa might as well have been on the moon, so distant was it in my mind. Despite being sad to leave my loved ones in Toronto behind, I wasn’t dreading a return to a South African summer and going back to school. I am one of the fortunate ones who actually enjoys their job, I suppose.

As my visa to be in South Africa was to expire on January 27th, 2009 (as stated on the visa that has been in my passport since late 2007) and applications for visa extensions must be lodged at least a month before the old one is to expire, I began the initial steps of my application before I left for Canada at the beginning of December. I was unable to complete the application before my departure as it required a Police Clearance certificate from my home country that was valid within the last 6 months (the futility of requiring such a thing when I have been living here for the last year seemed to be apparent only to me), and I would need to be in Canada to acquire said documentation. I was given an extension on my visa application, with the police clearance and the R11,500 repatriation fee (as I am without a valid return ticket), to be rendered upon my return and the completion of my application.

Our plane touched down in Cape Town around 6:45 am on January 11th, 2009. Bleary-eyed from the close to 12-hour sleepless flight, I made my way to customs, pleased with the place at the front of the customs line that my speedy exit from the plane had provided me with. I greeted the customs agent with a sleepy smile, and handed over my passport. On numerous occasions upon my re-entry to R.S.A. I have had customs agents who are from Gugulethu and some who even studied at Fezeka. They are always pleased that I am working there, and usually send me on my way with a big smile. Not this customs agent. As she checked my visa, her brows furrowed. She then asked for my return ticket. When I told her did not have one, and that my visa extension application was with Home Affairs in town, she looked even more confused. Oh boy.

She then called over who I can only assume was her superior, who curtly informed me that my visa was no longer valid. Say what?

Ignoring the preamble and the parts of the visa that give my name, passport and visa number, what is printed on my visa follows:


Authority to proceed to the Republic to report to an Immigration officer at a port or port of entry has been granted by the Department of Home Affairs.

Number of Entries: Multiple Entry on or before 27/01/2009
Issued at: S.A. Consulate General Toronto on 28/12/2007

To be admitted for a period of twelve (12) months.
Volunteer at Fezeka S. School in Gugulethu Cape Town.

Despite my pointing out to this ever-so-charming individual that it is clearly printed on the visa that it is valid until the 27th of the month, she refuted what I said, claiming that they pay attention to the ‘admitted for a period of 12 months’ part, and that since my first entry into the Republic had been on January 9th, 2008, my visa had expired on January 9th, 2009;

the day before yesterday.

I told her that I had spent time at Home Affairs in town prior to my departure, that they had scrutinized my passport, looked at my visa, and said that I had until the 27th of December to lodge my visa extension application (a month before my existing one expired). The agent was unmoved and advised me that Home Affairs and Customs were two separate things. Exhausted and uncharacteristically too drained to fight, I asked her what my options were.

“You can either go back to London (where my flight had just come from), or buy a one-way ticket home to Canada,” I was told.

I asked to speak with her supervisor, who, although friendlier, basically reiterated what she had said, with the added option of paying a R12,000 repatriation fee on the spot. When I told him I had this money at home to submit with my visa extension application, he asked me if there was anyone at home who could bring it to the airport for me. It was now 7:45 a.m. Feeling my anger rise, I told him that there was not, and that I lived alone. Could I put the fee on my credit card? Yes, he said, although it would be a mission to get back. What? He said that it takes time, it has to go to Johannesburg and that sometimes they take a fee. WHAT? This man was telling me that I could pay a deposit of which I might not get back the entire amount?

Fine, I acquiesced; I would buy a one-way fully refundable ticket, which I would refund as soon as my visa extension was approved. He then told me that he didn’t know if I could get a refundable ticket. It was at this point that I demanded to speak to a British Airways employee who could sell me the refundable ticket and get me out of the holding room they reserve for interrogating people they suspect of misdoings and illegally entering the country.
The BA employees were lovely women, who walked me passed the baggage reclaim, out the gates, through the airport and into the departure terminal, and helped me get my [indeed, fully refundable] ticket. When they found out that I was volunteering, they shook their heads in disgust at the fact that I had been denied entry. They told me they had heard all kinds of stories; of families being turned back because of a spelling error on one of the children’s visas; of people being sent back on the next flight because they didn’t know they had to have a return ticket and didn’t have the money to pay for one on the spot, or people being denied entry because they didn’t have any spare pages in their passport upon which to stick the 1.5 x 2.5 inch visa sticker.

I was then escorted back where I showed the customs agent my ticket and was given a 3 month visitors visa. After I collected my bags and was about to exit into the arrivals terminal, I was stopped by two men who check bags and asked about the contents of my luggage. Any alcohol, food, cigarettes or gifts?

“No,” I replied, “I prefer to support the local economy.”
“Oh do you live here?” One of them asked.
“Okay then. Welcome home!”

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

On Wednesday I spent almost the entire (sweltering hot) day at Home Affairs in town waiting to submit the remainder of my visa extension application. I was a bit concerned that the fact that I now had a 3 month visitor’s visa might affect the fact that I was applying for an extension on a different visa that was apparently no longer valid, but wasn’t about to point that out to any of the officials with whom I spoke. My experience at Home Affairs and what I witnessed other applicants going through could fill another blog in of itself, but suffice to say that one would be hard pressed to believe that the Republic of South Africa welcomes visitors and those wanting to extend their stays, so rude and dismissive were many of the people behind the counter, particularly towards those whose grasp of the English language was not very good.

At precisely 12pm, 6 of the 8 staff who had been working behind the counter went on lunch, leaving 1 manager and 1 trainee to handle the 100+ crowd of people waiting in different lines. I didn’t say a word when I was sent to the wrong line twice and only told I was in the wrong line when I reached the front of the line as this had happened when I had been there to submit the first part of my application in early December. Not to mention when I was sent to the wrong office on the other side of town, only to be told when I arrived there that I couldn’t file the visa extension at that location. I later found this out to allegedly be untrue, but at this point I think it better to cover all my bases than to believe anything anyone who works for Home Affairs or Customs says. Finally, after waiting, starving and sweating for over 6 hours, my visa extension was in my passport. Success! This only happened because the 4th woman to handle my application was herself a former student at Fezeka and walked me up to the office on the floor above where the visas were physically put into the passports. After I paid my repatriation fee, the man behind the counter asked me if I hadn’t had to pay one in Canada when I made my initial application in late 2007. Indeed I had, I told him. He then informed me that the receipt for that deposit would have sufficed to pay my deposit here. Of course, I had not been told this by Home Affairs in Cape Town prior to my departure, nor was I informed of this little tidbit of information by the staff the South African Consulate General in Toronto, whom I spoke with on 3 different occasions during the month I was in Canada for the holidays, and as a result the receipt for my initial deposit is somewhere at my mother’s house in Toronto.

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

To add insult to injury, when the refund for my airline ticket appeared on my credit card statement yesterday (2 days after the initial charge had been processed), because of foreign exchange rate fluctuations, I ended up getting charged $55 CDN or close to R450 (almost a quarter of my monthly rent) for the ticket.


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