Seven years ago I took a trip to the South African Home Affairs Department to apply for my Identity Document (ID). A green book, with an unflattering picture of me, minor details like my citizenship, my date of birth, the names I never use and thirteen numbers that would define me on government systems for the rest of my life.
I remember waiting in endless queues for hours on end, rude administrators behind boxy computers, with crowds of people stuck in a room with a bad paint job, benches falling apart and dark lighting. No one likes to take a trip to Home Affairs, and I was not keen on doing it a second time for my ID renewal.
I found myself queuing once again, only this time things were different. The gloomy building now had electronic checkpoints equipped with Dell computers and scanners. The room was brighter, with stone tiles, furnished with brown counters and silver benches, the kind you see at the bank. Queues were controlled by an electronic number system and a robotic voice generated the next number within short time intervals. People were required to give their finger prints and signatures, my dad said it was for security purposes. Makes you wonder, how did they manage without these things for so long before they realized they needed it now?
It struck me that there was a clearly marked suggestion box, which seemed to be working because the staff took extra care to be friendly. The crowd had not changed in seven years. All kinds of people, foreigners, South Africans, the elderly, teenagers, people dressed in suits and elegant traditional gear for their trip to town, others were dressed more casually. We all had the same urgency to get done with these onerous tasks.
There was a Canon camera secured to the wall of a cubicle where pictures were taken. Mine still had the same unruly hair, only my face was chubbier. I was assigned the number 240, which did not sound so bad until the robotic voice blared out “195”. I was sitting next to Mr “196”. He was watching “195” at the counter, burning with impatience, clenching his fists, wiggling in his chair, waiting to hear the robotic voice call out his number.
One guy, irritable with the wait, paced up and down, with his arms folded, sighing with frustration.
Behind me, people sneaked in a few snacks, despite the sign that read “No eating or drinking inside the office.” Besides the chitter chatter of surrounding voices, people had their smartphones to keep them busy. An old lady’s phone rung loudly, a groovy tune probably chosen by her grand child. Maybe she didn’t know about the silent setting, or maybe she thought it was so cool, everyone should get to hear it. One guy, irritable with the wait, paced up and down, with his arms folded, sighing with frustration.
My father, gesturing to a man with a cap and a purposeful look on his scarred face, asked, “Does that guy look suspicious to you? Is he going to blow the place up.” “To what benefit?” I responded. “Now we’re going to wait. Let’s pray in tongues for things to go faster,” he continued.
An administrator got up and called for “ID collections”, hoards of people got up to give him their old ID books. A woman commented, “Now they want to spark, it’s almost home time.” She was right, it was 3.30 pm. My dad and I debated whether we should stay or go. Another half hour past when the administrator who collected the ID books came to us, looking burdened to deliver a message we would not like to hear. “I don’t know how to start, but I’m going to say it any way. Our systems are offline, can you come tomorrow morning?” he asked. My dad was relieved, I was irritated because he was clearly lying, it was almost home time and he probably wanted to clear the room. Alas, my dad’s decision was set in stone, “Lameez, we’ll sit here until 5pm if we don’t leave now.”
Once again, I found myself outside the dreaded building the next morning. It was 6.50 am and I felt sleep deprived, mostly because I made the foolish decision to watch the opening World Cup match the night before. I was assigned number two this time and the old man next to me was assigned number three. He started telling me about his knee, which he could not bend because of an operation. I was relieved when the robotic voice interrupted with “number two”.
At the counter, the administrator kept apologizing about the slow systems. Funnily, this administrator was the same guy who collected the details for my ID seven years prior. My full circle moment was ruined when a cockroach scuttled across the counter, and that is when I reached my limit. Those new counters, souped up electronic systems and good public relations were undone by that single cockroach.
The South African experience, is not on the dunes of the Kalahari desert, the peaks of the Drakensberg, the golden beaches of Durban, the wild of the Transvaal or the culture in Cape Town. Those are great adverts for tourists to spend their money here. The South African experience is all the things that take place on a microscopic level, the things you encounter daily, the queues, the systems and the people who run them, the things that are not glamourised for the world to see.
Those flaws. Those human things. Those experiences are uniquely South African.