Thursday, July 29, 2010

an exercise in patience

IF you are a person of colour, from a foreign country, if you struggle with English, or happen to lose your temper at the unbelievable incompetence of the people working in the South African Department of Home Affairs and their way of doing their jobs, good luck to you.

You will be sent away, to the back of the queue, told that the person serving ‘cannot understand you, you must return with someone who speaks English’, or your application will somehow – mysteriously – get ‘lost’.

For a country that touts itself as an international hub, that welcomes visitors from around the world and has as recently as 2 weeks ago hosted the biggest sports tournament on the planet, the services at the offices of South African Home Affairs are disgraceful.

Not once – Not. Once. – in any of my countless visits to their fluorescent-lit offices, have I had a good customer service experience.

I have spent 7 hours waiting, repeatedly told that my file was being located, only to be later informed that it cannot be found, or, that the offices are closing and I must come back tomorrow.

I have seen people sent away in tears after being told that their files cannot be found and they must start the application process from scratch.  When a flood destroyed thousands of documents at the central Cape Town Home Affairs office last year, an equally high number of people were told that they must resubmit all their documents.  Just like that.  Never mind that for many, some of those documents were originals, sent from their home countries, at a cost to them that they couldn’t afford, and were impossible to replace. Or that these new unforeseen costs meant that many would have to leave the country.  You have to start over.  End of conversation.

I have listened to those who tried to stand up for themselves, or others (like myself) who try to stand up for those who struggle to do it for themselves, being told to SIT DOWN, I TOLD YOU THAT I WOULD BE WITH YOU WHEN I WAS READY.

I have watched staff sit around their desks drinking coffee and joking with their colleagues, while a packed room, overflowing with people breathing in stifling air that is thick with the smell of sweat, despair and stale man, waits for their attention.

I have witnessed otherwise calm and respectable members of the public come close to blows with others who sit with them, when they think that they have cut in line or won’t give up the chair they are sitting in, despite none of the chairs being marked as designated for anyone in particular, the frustration of waiting for hours having taken its toll on them.

I have encountered staff who are rude, self-righteous, selectively deaf, lazy and offensive, the plywood table that separates them from the public somehow giving them a godlike complex which they exercise freely and at will.

I have waited in a queue – a queue that I have been directed to wait in by the person sitting at a table labeled ‘information’ – for hours, only to be told when I reached the front that I have been waiting in the wrong queue and must start at the back of another, equally long one.

I have friends – successful entrepreneurs, both South African and foreign – who have been put through the hellish ringer, to the point where were it not for the beauty of the country and people, might have been forced to abandon any hope of even attempting to live here. Oh and if you are South African and you lose a loved one, don’t think the pain of that loss is all you will suffer. Home Affairs must sign off on the death certificate, and until they do, all pensions, life insurance payments and other reparations for the bereaved are withheld. As if the loss of your spouse/parent/child isn’t enough, we are going to leave you penniless until someone who ‘has nothing to do, gets around to sorting through the pile of miscellaneous admin’. End quote. From a Home Affairs employee.

I am not a black single mother domestic worker or a manual labourer from another country who barely speaks English for whom missing a day of work means my children won’t eat.  I am an assertive, privileged, white-skinned, first-language English speaker who has the luxury of taking time off work when needed, and I struggle to get my needs met at Home Affairs. Add to that my difficulty in remaining calm and composed in situations where incompetence and injustice abounds, and it is a sure bet that every time I leave their offices my blood pressure is elevated, my palms marked with deep indentations from my nails being dug into them, and my teeth worn down jut a bit from grinding.

Today I visited Home Affairs in their new digs in the Foreshore.  Unsurprisingly, the same frustrations have persisted. New address. Same bullshit.

Come on Home Affairs. Get it together. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

sweets... this was the way of life in Ukraine. It still is... when you see your own mother loose it and start screaming at a woman who just cut the 50 person line off at my mom and said come back tomorrow. the frustration and the "could care less" attitude are maddening. However the people are not paid enough to care. And after spending almost half my life there, it was time to BOUNCE!