Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Government Service - African Style

There is only one thing worse than spending three hours sitting in a queue that doesn't move - spending three hours STANDING in a queue that doesn't move. In South Africa's government departments, this is getting beyond a joke.

A little while ago I had a run in with the local Traffic Department, whose Enquiries desk was absolutley clueless about whether my Finnish girlfriend would be allowed to drive in SA using her EU drivers license - or not, what papers if any she would have to fill out in order to be allowed to drive, or whether she could get an international license here - or not, or if she would have to wait until we are married and she gets permanent residency before going through the whole process of getting her almost worthless local SA license the hard way.

I find it odd that somebody can get a license in a first world country which has far higher standards than South Africa (and far less corruption) and this license would not be "good enough" to be recognized here. Another question that popped up in my mind was whether we were the only people to ever ask them questions about foreign drivers licenses in SA. They did however manage to give me a mobile number for somebody in Uitenhage who might be able to assist us in our enquiries - if said person actually exists and ever answers her phone.

Today I accompanied my girlfriend to the Home Affairs department in Port Elizabeth. She's from Finland and needs to apply for a work permit in order to get a job - or at least, so we thought. While in the queue, a nice Tanzanian man started chatting to us and pointed out that as far as he knew you had to first find a job and get your employer to write you a letter, which you then bring to Home Affairs and use to apply for your work permit.

Hmm. The queue was quite long - about twenty people sitting in stony silence on a row of benches which wind through the stuffy room (because the smart looking airconditioner was not working). Rather than sit in the queue for the next eternity in vain, I decided to ask the Inquiries counter.

The woman at the counter told me (after I spent fifteen minutes in a reasonably short queue there) that she knows nothing about work permits and that I should ask the people at the counters in front of the queue in the foreign department. She told me I could just go to the front and ask. Wondering what the purpose of the "inquiries" counter was in the first place, bemused, I walked back to the foreign department and sat down to wait for the single operator who occupied one of the three counters there to make an appearance.

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It also occured to me that the queue had not moved an inch in the time I was away - and that with two empty counters and one missing operator it was still going to be quite a wait. A few minutes later said operator returned and I approached the counter, noting that she saw me. Out of politeness, I allowed her to finish her conversation with the client who was leaving and tried to ask my question - but she simply turned her back on me and walked off, despite me twice calling out "excuse me!"

By now, my blood was boiling and I was outraged by the complete lack of concern for their clients - appalling manners and total absence of competency or efficiency at this so called department.

Then I decided to find a supervisor or a manager I could complain to. Big mistake. Walking past the "inquiries" counter I saw no such sign or door. I saw a cashier and decided to ask her for directions. After trying to explain my position for about five minutes, during which she kept interrupting me by telling me that the woman at the foreign department could assist me, I finally made it clear that the woman at the counter did not want to talk to me and that the "inquiries" counter was of no use. Her response? "So what do you want me to do about it?"

I have worked in many kinds of positions in my time, including working at counters and doing customer care - and believe me - this is NOT it!

I then asked for a manager or a supervisor I could speak to - she was then even more unhelpful (if that is possible) and blatantly refused to assist me by calling "Mr Scholtz" to the front - she said if I wanted to speak to him I would have to ask the "lady" at the foreign affairs department counter to call him. Ready to scream, I asked her how can I ask her to call him if she insists on ignoring me? I left, with her patently vacant expression still burning in my mind.

The previous times I had spent here were quite fresh in my memory - while applying for her visa extension a few months ago we had spent an entire day - from when the doors opened until 4pm in one queue waiting for some beaurocratic attention. Enough was enough!

On the way out, fuming, I stopped at the "inquiries" counter again, waited - and spoke to the same person as before. Same procedure - I had to go to the same foreign department and they would help me, she said. But they aren't helping me, I said - the woman won't even speak to me! I suggested she call somebody to ask about the work permit. She slowly dragged her lazy ass over to the phone and spoke to somebody for less than twenty seconds - and then once again referred me to the same "lady" at the counter.

This is tantamount to the inquiries clerk referring the client to inquiries. Talk about a vicious circle! In short, you end up having to spend three hours in a queue just to find out if you needed to be there in the queue in the first place - and it's just too bad if you find out at the end of the three hours that you didn't.

She seemed not in the least bit concerned that I would have to wait in that queue for God knows how long just for an answer to a simple question which could mean the difference between having to queue or not - to get a work permit before finding a job - or vice versa - and of course, three more hours wasted. In other words, we had to go through the queue to find out if we had to go through the queue.


Walking back to the queue again, where I found my girlfriend - right where I left her - I contemplated calling some of the Home Affairs numbers on my mobile - and remembered my previous attempts as fruitless. I am sure they must unplug those phones - or there is nobody within earshot of their ringing, because how can anybody stand to listen to a phone's continuous ring without answering it? I may have imagined it, but my ears started to ring at this point. And no, I wasn't going to answer them either.

I began to contemplate the rumors doing the rounds about how, if you want immediate attention at Home Affairs, you should arrive carrying a box of KFC under your arm - and whether or not I should dash off to the nearest branch - and believe me, I considered it!

We sat in the queue another hour, the queue not moving one millimeter. In fact, some people behind us got fed up and left - and then some more people arrived - whom we were infomed had been there much earlier - and reclaimed their places in the queue - somewhere ahead of us. This was accepted with apparent stoicism and patience far beyond my ken.

Queueing - African style.

I am a patient person for the most part - but if you really want to grate my carrot, put me in a queue that doesn't move. If you want a scene, then let people leave the queue, have the others move up those spaces, and then let these idiots come back thinking they can just push in again. Sorry - if you leave a queue and you come back - you go to the back of the queue - that's how a queue works - right up until a few years ago, that is how it always worked. Otherwise what is the fucking point?

We had seen some people in HA uniforms walking in and out, going to the shop and coming back with food - don't think one of them showed their faces to check on the queue, or if there was anything they could help with - or that they would allow anyone to catch their eyes in case - God forbid - they were to ask them anything! On top of that the solitary "service provider" at the one manned counter disappeared into the office upon their return. We then heard laughter and the sounds of crockery and cutlery. Lunch break. Break? From what?

The pangs of hunger gnawing at us, and bloodpressure rising at this infuriating incompetence, we decided to leave this nest of unhelpful, arrogant, rude and utterly useless "public servants" and make our inquiries on the internet, which we chided ourselves for not trying in the first place, instead of wasting the better part of an afternoon here at this circus. I was furious that I had actually asked off from work in order to sort out this matter - and achieved nothing more than to elevate my blood pressure and stress level.

When I got home I looked up some numbers of Home Affairs service points in the telephone directory, in PE, Uitenhage, Grahamstown, Cradock and Humansdorp - and called them. I held on until the line went dead at the timeout - but NOT ONE SINGLE CALL WAS ANSWERED! Obviously you are not meant to complain because they don't care a damn and they certainly are not available to hear your complaint anyway. It is disgusting and infuriating. Home Affairs is clearly in desperate need of a complete overhaul - and I know just where to start - MANAGEMENT. Put their jobs (or performance incentives) on the line and they will soon sort out lazy and incompetent officials that make them look bad.

I think every incompetent fool and customer relations nightmare behind a counter in the Home Affairs office should be FIRED and physically kicked out the door! What kind of a blithering idiot puts people at an inquiry counter who a) can't answer a straight forward question b) clearly do not know their work c) couldn't be bothered to pick up a phone to find out the answer - or puts up with a subordinate who asks the client sarcastically "what do you want me to do about it?"

I think it is no wonder people from civilized countries LAUGH at South Africa - this country is certainly worth every stomach cramp - even if it is worth nothing else.

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