Scary stories from a lovely place
Today was a good day! I got my visa extended at Home Affairs in Joburg. This has involved months of waiting, filling out forms, driving to the police headquarters in Pretoria, getting finger-printed and today it all paid off because as of next week I would be illegal, but now I am not!
As any good Kwera Kwera can testify, visits to Home Affairs in town require a particular state of mind. Most Kwera Kwera’s (and locals) you speak to will give you a whingey earful about their experiences (which may not even be theirs) and, if they are from a western country will generally bemoan the inefficency of South Africa’s bureaucratic systems. In my opinion, this is unacceptable. If work, love, ministry, curiosity or escapism (which is what so much of today’s travelling mindset is about) brings you to live in South Africa, then you have to take it for what it is. You can’t come here, settle down, make friends, get a car and then complain about what you observe to be the nation’s shortcomings, while crowing to your South African friends about how cheap everything is for you because of the exchange rate. It’s just rude.
But I digress. Despite the waiting, the confusing paperwork and the sexual harrassment on the way in (“oh lady have I told you how much I love white women”) a visit to Home Affairs needn’t be seen as burdensome, but rather an opportunity to get some solid reading or podcast listening done, to relax, to tell people about Jesus, to hold cute babies and to be entertained. As well as the only avenue to secure legal residence in this country. A trip to Home Affairs continually reminds me of how easy and good my life is compared to most other people trying to live in this city. Walking from the car takes me past many beggars and other poor people. Inside I’ve had conversations with men and women who are desperate to stay but whose options are far limited compared to mine. I’ve seen young men told they have to leave because they are illegal. Young women holding tiny babies told they have to go back to their own country without the baby’s South African father. And I’ve compared myself in such basic measures as dress and appearance and realised that I am richer financially and have more options than most of the people I am queuing with. It’s all been good for the old whingey self pity.
So in the spirit of not complaining, but taking Home Affairs for what it is, here are my tips for handling such feared visits….
Be ready to wait. And wait, and wait some more. Don’t make a trip to Home Affairs and expect to be in and out in under an hour, even if you just want to ask a question. My shortest visit has been about 2 and a half hours, and that was just to ask a question. Longest has been 6 hours. Take books. Take food. Take water. Have airtime on your phone. Even take a cushion (the benches aren’t great). Be ready to sit for hours, sardined in next to strangers who might smell weird or be singing or have a crying baby or talk incessantly or inappropriately stare.
Be patient. If you’re an impatient person by nature, psych youself up for days before your intended visit. Being pissed off gets you nowhere and the scary Afrikaans lady will not be hustled by your rudeness. She’ll just send you to the end of the line to wait some more. It is very exciting reaching the front of the line, getting out your papers and waiting nervously to hear ‘next in the queue’ (so as to differentiate between those waiting in the queue and those trying to take a short cut). But you may not be home free. You might have the wrong form, you might have the wrong papers, you might just strike it unlucky and get the consultant on a bad day. Be ready to come again, and again.
Be helpful. Home Affairs isn’t super well signposted as you enter the ground floor, or on subsequent floors. When people enter a waiting room and look dazed at the snaking lines and lack of system, amuse yourself for a moment with their facial expression, and then make sure you or someone tells them how the queue works. It’s awful when you see someone join the queue without getting a number, and then they wait and wait, only to be made to start again. If ever we as humanity need to band together, it is at Home Affairs. So hold the baby of the lady next to you so she can sort herself out, mind the spot next to you when someone goes to the toilet, loan pens and share your snacks.
Be polite. As I said, the scary white lady shows no mercy and she can’t be hustled. But it’s not just her. The trendy, coloured guy might look more approachable, but he’s not, he too won’t take any crap. And though the young Afrikaans lady is friendly and smily, she too will tell you to get to the end of the line. You might think you have a chance with the quiet black lady, but don’t be fooled, she’ll just ignore you and help the next person. So be polite to these people. As far as you are concerned, they are the gods of Home Affairs.
And finally, be a conossieur of human behaviour. Home Affairs is a great opportunity to wonder at the bizarreness of people. Enjoy the temper tantrums, the cajoling, the wrath of the staff, the efficiency of the security guards controlling the lines. Talk to those around you. It’s amazing to hear why people want to live in South Africa, what they think of Zuma and Malema (Indians say no, African foreigners say yes), the consternation of South Africans at why you would want to live here instead of in Australia and sordid stories of brushes (and crashes) with crime.
In conclusion, in the spirit of not whingeing, I would like to thank the following people for making my Home Affairs experience a good one…
Stephen – for bringing me food and marrying me so I could stay in the country (not the sole reason)
The scary lady – for knowing everything and not making me pay any money
My Korean friend – for being lovely and continually patting my stomach
The security guard – for sorting out the riff raff. Bloody queue jumpers
The trendy coloured guy – for losing my police clearance certificate, but still granting my application
Ellie – for coming with me once, even though we didn’t get in
The short lady from level 4 – for giving me a permanent residency interview in March instead of 2 days before my baby makes its appearance
And all the irate, impatient people – for making it entertaining, and reminding me not to be like you