How to survive South African bureaucracy

October 25, 2017 § 4 Comments

I’ve had the misfortune of having a lot to do with government departments of late, so I thought I’d compile a handy guide to help you to get through your next Home Affairs or Licensing Department ordeal experience.

  1. Block out an entire day. You probably won’t need it, but it’s better to manage your own expectations, and hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised when they spring you earlier than you expected, and you emerge like some sort of Hollywood jailbird, blinking at the bright sunlight outside.
  2. Prepare your mind. You will need a calm, zen-like demeanour to handle the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that are coming your way. They are. There’s no avoiding them. And there’s little point in getting angry or sarcastic, or throwing your toys. Forget Parliament and the Zuptas – this is where the true power lies in our country. You are at the bureaucrats’ mercy, and they know it. Keep calm and carry on: acceptance and obsequiousness are the watchwords.
  3. Get there at least an hour before it opens. I know people say the afternoon is quiet, but if you mis-time things, you could arrive after the dreaded queue cut-off time – which can be as early as 1.30pm some days. I’ve seen it happen more than once. If you get there at the crack of dawn you might queue for an hour before they even open the doors, but at least it’s by your own choice. Somehow, that helps with the acceptance.
  4. Dress appropriately. You will be standing for a long time, even if you get there early. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes. Don’t forget to wear layers for the inevitable changes in temperature.
  5. Carry an umbrella. I queued a few weeks ago in the pouring rain. I wore a raincoat, though, because I am exceedingly clumsy and I thought my queue-mates might like to keep their eyes. In rain or shine, it makes sense to take an umbrella, because it’ll keep you dry in the wet, and provide portable shade for those days where you have to queue in the blazing sun. Those days are inevitable. Pack your umbrella.
  6. Pack padkosYou’re going to need it. You are going on a journey of several hours, and you’ll be cranky if your blood sugar drops. It’s hard to be obsequious when you’re cranky. I also take a flask of coffee with me now, and there’s nothing as satisfying as the envy in your queue-mates’ eyes as you crack open the flask and the aroma of coffee fills the room. Take sandwiches, fruit, water and a chocolate biscuit or two. Life is always better when a chocolate biscuit is in it.
  7. Don’t believe the website about what you need. Most government websites were last updated during the Rinderpest, and they inevitably get things wrong. Your best bet is to do a recce the day before to find out fees and forms and other requirements. However, the same bureaucrat might give you a different story the next day, so you might require a third visit. I think they’re secretly part of a government initiative to build resilience in its citizens.
  8. Forget the enquiries desk – speak to the security guards. They always know exactly what you need and where you need to be. And they’re usually much more friendly. They are the best source of information, seriously. Even the toothless, prune-skinned car guard at one of the places I visited had a better grasp on the process than the enquiries desk.
  9. Pack the essentials. No matter what you are going to do always have at least one certified copy each of your identity document and proof of address. Two, to be safe. Just assume that if you’re dealing with government, you need those two things. And if it has anything to do with identification, take along two passport-sized photos as well.
  10. Carry any fees in cash. Some departments will take credit cards now, but the systems often go down, so cash is the safest. I work on twice whatever the designated fee is – because often there’s some or other fee or extra that you didn’t think of, like a temporary driver’s licence because you left it too late to renew the permanent one. Of course, I don’t know anyone who would be so irresponsible, (cough) but maybe you do.
  11. Take something light and mindful to do. You might as well regard it as a time to catch up on reading or knitting, or to practise Sudoku, or whatever takes your fancy. Just choose something that’s easy to pack up when you have to move along in the queue.
  12. The chairs are the prize. Just when you feel you are losing hope, and your ankles are swelling up like a child’s swimming tube, the prized rows of chairs swim into view. You’re making progress. You can do this. Reward yourself with another chocolate biscuit for strength. Perhaps it’s worth packing a whole box of them, actually.
  13. It ain’t over till it’s over. Don’t think you’ve made it just because you’re in the last chair, in the last stage of queueing. Something will be wrong, and you’ll have to go back to another queue. Don’t relax till you are walking back to your car with all the receipts in your hand. Hope is a terrible thing.
  14. Mind your manners. These places aren’t always kind to the elderly or the disabled. I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but please give up your seat if necessary. You won’t lose your place in the queue – people just accommodate and remember whose turn it is – and you can add a little credit to your karmic score. Go on. I know you were brought up well.
  15. Talk to the people next to you. It’s hard to be hopeful in South Africa sometimes, but government queues are both great levellers, and places of great camaraderie. Somehow when we’re all united in our struggle to be properly documented, we forget our differences, and relate to each other as human beings. People laugh and joke, and help each other out, and it’s a beautiful thing. Besides, if you need a bathroom break, they’ll be more inclined to keep your place if you were nice to them.



§ 4 Responses to How to survive South African bureaucracy

  • charliesbird says:

    My theory and I am sticking to it, is that those government departments are in cahoots with my husbuddy and are trying to drive my crazy/to an early grave.
    (see Trevor Noah’s skit on Hypertension for a unique insight…)
    I totally agree with you on taking your patience and manners along with you. It’s amazing how grateful (some of) the staff are, when you say please and thank you, and treat them like a person.

    Liked by 1 person

  • David Lock says:

    I try to remember that at least I am not on the other side of the queue facing that number of people EVERY day! I maintain these visits are actually good for us–patience, humility, comradarie etc, just as long as I don’t have to do it very often. Oh, I am a Marriage Officer, I have to do it way too often.

    One last piece of advice. If documenting your children, take both parents and all IDs and birth certificates. But most importantly both parents!

    Liked by 1 person

  • Neil Higgs says:

    Fantastic advice.


    Neil Higgs

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

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