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A day at the Department of Home Affairs

Posted on Dec 19, 2013 by in Current events, South Africa


For a quiet sort of person who listens about 800% more than I ever talk, there is no other way to describe a day at the Department of Home Affairs than as an assault on the senses. This is where it all began, I set foot here for the first time 10 years ago in 2004 when I started learning about immigration (and back then it was far more unpleasant, no less chaotic) and I’ve moved up in the immigration world to the point that it’s been years since I’ve even had to stand in as an emergency because my talents and experience are far more useful in the back office, but nevertheless, here  we were… being bombarded with sound and smell that’s enough to make your eyes water.

Before the doors even open queues of people who have been there for hours waiting to secure their spot in line are starting to show strain. Practitioner/agents, people  who do this every day, are already swearing at each other and telling one another to shut up. Once the doors open and the stampede begins, you are assaulted by a maelstrom of noise and activity.

I am always astounded when I meet people who talk non-stop, more so even when in a whole day of non-stop talking not a valuable word has been spoken. But this place was filled with them, everywhere. You’d think that a floor that deals mainly with the matters of foreigners would be a composed sort of place, but instead, coloureds are shouting at coloureds, blacks are shouting at blacks (even though they are standing a foot from each other – a cultural thing I’ve never quite grasped), the Germans are laughing good-naturedly and gesturing as they speak loudly, trying to compete or perhaps just unaware of the chaos around them, every second other person is talking on a phone…the Home Affairs officials are trying to shout over the din to be heard and instruct the waiting masses on what to do and where to go to be helped. When they venture onto the floor, asking people to listen to the announcements (with their ears, in case ‘listen’ isn’t in the vocabulary of some foreigners), a grumpy young Brit pipes up to tell her not to be so incredibly rude. I’ve never met a Home Affairs official who doesn’t give you attitude right back if you start with them, so this became a 8-minute public conversation about the definition of rudeness.

When there is a momentary lull in the noise, you hear countless little stories people are telling those with them, colleagues in the industry or sometimes, perfect strangers, bound by the mutual experience of being here (like war veterans).

An elderly Scot with no papers at all with him, wanders aimlessly and sits down when he’s offered a seat (there is still some respect for the elderly after all). Then out of nowhere, above the noise, he casts his full tenor voice and starts singing a Frank Sinatra tune. No, I’m not kidding, this really happened.

He strikes up a conversation with the traditionally dressed Cameroonian gentleman sitting next to him about the music of Sinatra’s era and then wanders off aimlessly again. As it turns out, when he came back to say goodbye to his new comrade, he’d just been looking for information, and was in entirely the wrong place.

After an interminable time of waiting and listening, I was called and finally helped. I then trekked the 3 floors up to pay a repatriation guarantee when there had been no cashier to accept the normal fee payments downstairs for over an hour. When I come back down there’s still no-one, so I take up my post and the line starts to form behind me. When I finally get another staff member’s attention to ask, not a bit miffed, where the cashier was, a scrawny young man pipes up to placate me – “the payment system is down”. This turns out not to be the case as said cashier comes strolling in on her cellphone less than 7 minutes later, logs into the pc and continues as before.

What can I say? This is Cape Town. This is my city and there’s no place quite like it :-)