Certain things in life are great levellers. A visit to Home Affairs in Barrack Street, Cape Town, is one of them.
I have been putting off getting my new smart card identity document, partly because I thought I was going to have to give up on my old green ID book, with all its IEC stamps, from 1994 when we voted for the first time. But when my passport expired, I could no longer procrastinate and, on Monday, decided to take the great leap of faith which is a visit to Home Affairs.
Yes, I know that one can also renew one’s passport and get a smart card ID through a bank, but I did not want to deprive myself of a uniquely South African experience.
My wife and I arrived at Home Affairs just before 11am. Like detention without trial in the 1980s, we had no idea where we were going or how long it would be before we saw sunlight again.
We first had to wait outside, in a short queue, before being allowed to go inside. This took only a few minutes before we joined a confusing snaky line inside where our first stop would be the “Meeter and Greeter”.
One learns a lot when you are standing in a queue with complete strangers, some who have lost their ID documents, some who were applying for an ID document for the first time, and one or two who got married or divorced and wanted to change their surnames.
Two hours later, we finally got to the meeter and greeter, a reasonably jovial person – despite the obvious stress of his job. He was the only one who could check that you had the correct documents for your application before sending you off to the correct queue that you had to join.
The Home Affairs website says that, for a passport, you need the following:
· A duly completed passport application Form DHA-73
· Your original identity document and a copy, or a birth certificate and copy thereof if under 16
· If under 18 years, parental consent for issuing of the passport. Please see Tourist passports: persons under 16 for the requirements
· A completed determination of citizenship Form DHA-529 when applying from abroad
· Present any existing valid tourist passport or if you have lost your passport or it has been stolen and you are applying for a new passport, you must provide a loss of passport report (DHA-335 ) and confirmation that you reported the loss to the police
· Two colour photographs that comply with the Passport and ID Photograph Specifications (NOT needed at smartcard offices as ID images are captured digitally)
· Pay the prescribed fee for the passport
This is a direct quote from the website.
I took my old passport, my old ID book, a copy of the old ID book, proof of address and, of course, the prescribed fee. I was not asked for anything beyond my old passport and ID book, which were handed back to me afterwards. At least I got to keep my history. I did not have to fill in any forms. Maybe it was because it was a renewal, but then they need to be a bit more specific on their website.
After short conversation with the meeter and greeter, who previously interrupted a consultation with another person to go and help his colleague while everyone waited for about 10 minutes, we were told to join the line for “applying for an ID or passport”. This line was right next to the first queue and all that happened here was that we were given a number and told to go and wait for our photos to be taken. My wife was 439 and I was 440.
I noticed that there was a board in the reception area – if one can call it that – for star performers, but it contained no names, even though there was space for four photos. I don’t know if there were no star performers at this office or if they were just a bit slack in updating the information on the board.
Our meeter and greeter had earlier told us that “this is still better than Wynberg”.
We had survived the first part of our journey at Home Affairs. More was to come.
As we sat waiting in the main hall, we had to watch and listen to the board all the time. If your number was called and you forfeited your turn, you might have to come back another day. A couple in front of us were deeply engaged in conversation with another couple and did not hear their number. They only had to pay and had to back one of the people behind the counters to try and reinstate them. A few minutes later, the board told them to go to cashier one.
There were not enough seats in the main hall and, as soon as someone got up, someone else took the seat.
Of the nine counters that were available, there were sometimes only three or four people working. At most, I counted five people working behind the counters.
One of the people interfacing with the customers was merrily chewing gum while interviewing clients, while another got up to answer her cell phone, even though there is a sign saying that the area was supposed to be “cell phone free”.
At around 13h45, one of the Home Affairs staffers told us, “We have an error message on our system. I will check with head office what is going on and will get back to you.”
He did not get back to us, but just after 14h00, the board started working again and began instructing ticket numbers to go to counter 8 to 16 or cashier one or photo booth 21 or 23.
At times, only one of the photo booths had someone working.
At about 14h15, I got called to the photo booth 21, where I spent about three minutes only: to take thumb prints, sign a digital pad and have our photos taken. “Please don’t smile and keep your head straight,” were the firm instructions given to me.
Then it was back to finding a seat while we waited for our number to be called so that we could be interviewed at one of the counters.
At about 14h40, I was called to counter 16, where I was asked for my passport and ID. I was then asked to scan my left and right thumb and sign. I was asked for my cell number and address, and where I was married, in Cape Town or Johannesburg. This entire process last less than three minutes.
I was told to wait until my number was called again so that I could pay R400 for my passport and R140 for my ID.
A few minutes later, I was called to Cashier 1 to pay, which took another minute or so. I asked the cashier whether that was all that was required and whether I could go home now. It was that kind of experience, where you felt like you needed to ask permission before you could leave.
As we left, just before 15h00, we saw a small line of people waiting to go to the meeter and greeter. According to the website, the office closes at 15h30, but apparently, they help everyone who is inside at that time. Maybe the latecomers had a point.
More than four hours later, we left Home Affairs, feeling hungry and thirsty, thankful that we would not have to repeat this experience again, at least for the next 10 years until my passport expires again.
Outside, the sun was fighting its way through the clouds. It felt like I had just been released from detention.
It is clear to me that, with a little bit of better planning, Home Affairs could reduce the time it takes to make applications significantly. The biggest stumbling block is in reception where it took two hours to get to “meet and greet”, effectively reception or information. If they had put more than one person at this desk, the queues would move quicker.
I also did not see why we had to go from the first queue to one next door to be given a number. Surely, that could have happened at the end of the first queue. Like they had one meeter and greeter, they just had one person working at the other counter.
Getting to the meeter and greeter took two hours. There is no reason why that should happen.
Inside the main hall, they should try to make sure that there are more than five people working, especially as they have nine counters available.
I could not help thinking what the place would be like if they had a little restaurant inside, where one could have a bite while waiting, of course after you got your number. As it is, they ban eating inside the building.
There is no reason for a visit to Home Affairs to be an unpleasant experience, and it was not. It just took an incredible amount of time.
Ps. I did not ask Home Affairs for comment because these are my personal reflections. If they wish to respond, I will gladly carry their comments on this website.