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Published: August 23rd 2015
The flight to Cape Town was exhausting. I was seated next to an African lady and her toddler. For the entire journey the child was wide awake; kicking and scratching at me. The mother tended to her food needs but made no effort to restrain, entertain or get her to sleep. I wouldn't have minded too much except the entertainment system had a very restricted range of films in English as they had removed access to much of their repertoire from my seat. I was bored but could hardly sleep despite being awake for most of the previous 36 hours.
We got off the plane and went through passport control. This can be an interesting experience in Cape Town; you never quite know what the agent will be eating or otherwise preoccupied with. This time, however, he looked quite professional. Then he spoke... he had seen "Blackburn Road" in my address and wanted to know if I supported Blackburn Rovers, then why not and then why I didn't like any sport and how I survived without sport in my life. I feared I would be denied entry, despite having family here, because I failed the sport round - possibly the
only unforgivable sin for a man in South Africa.
Eventually I got through and went to meet Lindsey who had used the much shorter South African nationals queue. We quickly rescued our bags and went through to meet Lindsey's dad (who has requested to remain nameless for security reasons... for now we'll call him "Gandalf"). We stopped for a burger at Steers before going home. Gandalf approved heartily of this meal choice.
The first few days were a crazy mixture of catching up on sleep, catching up with family and trying to orient ourselves. We had one mission which had to be completed in week one: Renewing Lindsey's South African passport and ID book to reflect her married name.
To do this we had to visit Home Affairs.
For those who don't know the South African government's administrative functions, Home Affairs (DHA) has a legendary reputation. It has some of the responsibilities of the UK's Home Office; they handle anything to do with identity or immigration. Everyone here has to interact with them at some point. They also tend to be the organisation that foreign nationals have to deal with.
went to the DHA offices in a shopping centre in Wynberg. I was pleasantly surprised to find decent signage and even a part of the car park reserved for DHA customers. I was also surprised when we joined the queue that we were given a number and told we could come back later and if our number had already been called we could go straight in. It seemed their reputation was quite unfounded - so far the service was exemplary.
We went shopping and came back. Our number hadn't been called so we went for a coffee. Afterwards our number still hadn't come up so we joined the queue. We waited for half an hour and then they called the whole queue forward. Apparently they had reached their quota for the day... anyone else would be turned away. This was just after 12 o'clock.
Delighted to progress we entered the inner sanctum and went to the reception desk. They pointed us to the cash desk; we had to pay before we could speak to reception. The cash desk directed us back to reception to check our marriage had been registered because we couldn't pay until this had been done. Reception pointed us to another desk where we had to push in front of the queue that had been there all morning to speak to another man. The man we had to speak to pointed us to another lady and said she must deal with it. She checked and couldn't find any record of our marriage and Lindsey's name was officially still her maiden name. We were then sent to someone else who should be able to help. We spoke to her and she checked some systems, couldn't find the marriage and told us we had to get the Marriage Officer to register the marriage.
Summing the exchange up in a single paragraph makes it seem really quick and easy. Each conversation took seconds but they were punctuated with long queueing. We were there for hours.
We left without success. Unfortunately, we weren't the only ones. We heard one lady who wanted to register her new born baby, after she had had a Cesarean Section. She had come in five times, in her post operation condition, and not been able to complete her transaction. We spoke to others with similar stories of several visits and just being bounced around. Each of these people has a life and many are going through complex and sometimes traumatic adjustments. For most people it will require a day off work and many can't afford to lose a day's pay.
Looking around at the process there were some simple remedies. I suspect every agent had the answers if they thought about it but nobody was empowered to do anything. It was frustrating. I was suddenly grateful for the British Civil Service with it's considered processes. For all the improvements that could yet be made to interacting with government in Britain, and the frustrations it causes, we do have a system that gets results. We also have effective means of redress if something goes wrong. We have hope.
Later we called the Minister who married us. He said this was a common problem and that there is a three year backlog at Home Affairs for Marriage Registrations. The situation has gotten so bad that he has given up his marriage license in frustration. He has been working with the Shadow Home Affairs Minister to resolve the issue but so far has made little progress.
We don't expect we'll be able to renew Lindsey's passport during our three month stay in South Africa. Let's hope she doesn't need it!
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