Today, I went to fetch the kids’ passports from The Department of Home Affairs in the centre of Johannesburg.

Normally, I try – at all costs – to avoid having to visit a government department.  When one visits such buildings (including traffic department, home affairs, court rooms, municipality headquarters and everything in between), one is almost guaranteed to encounter the following frustrating issues:

  • Lack of parking… or, if there is parking available, a mass of unwelcome “car guards” demanding payment.
  • Chaotic groups of pushy salesmen and touts (who cluster around the entrance of said government departments) trying to sell you everything from ID photos to kitsch, gold embossed pleather cases saying “passport”.   Those not trying to sell you an item are offering bribes…  want an illegal licence plate for your car?  Easy to get.
  • Once inside the building – you can expect a maze of unmarked corridors and passages.  You’ll have no clue which floor… which room… or which direction you should be heading towards.
  • Rude, bored staff… who have no inclination to point you in the right direction.
  • Dirty, unkempt buildings from the dinosaur era.  Disgusting toilets (if you can even find any).  Broken lifts.  Broken windows.  The lot.
  • Long queues.  Long… LONG… queues.  Want to visit a government department?  Pack a picnic basket, bring a fold-out seat and a good book!
  • Endless red tape and government bureaucracy.  When you finally find the right room… in the right department… with the right counter… and after you’ve stood in a line for an hour… the bored looking person will tell you that you’ve:  a) completed the wrong forms, b)are at the wrong place and need to spend another 2 hours queueing elsewhere… or c)are missing a vital piece of information and you need to start the application process from scratch.

I could whinge on, but you get the picture.

For this reason, when the time came for us to go through the arduous process of getting passports for the kids, we decided to use a company called Don’t-Q (they queue at government departments on your behalf).

Don’t-Q try to take the pain and suffering out of getting stuff done at government departments (for a fee, of course).

They know which forms need to be filled out.  They know all the paperwork and bits and pieces that need gathering.   They help you fill out the forms, and then they drive you to the relevant government department  in their shiny minivan.  They know where to park.  They swat away the touts.  They lead you confidently to the correct room… and the correct counter… and they slot you in to the front of the long queue (we swapped out with the Don’t-Q employee whose job it is to spend entire days queueing at government departments on behalf of irritated, impatient people like me).

So… thanks be… it was relatively easy to apply for the kids’ passports – and it took about 3 hours out of our day (including the mini-van drive from the Don’t-Q office to the Department of Home Affairs in the centre of Joburg).

But – of course – there always has to be a glitch somewhere… and it came from an unexpected source:  ME.  I was the glitch!

Whilst driving back from Home Affairs in the Don’t-Q minivan, I had a conversation with the Don’t-Q driver that went something like this:

“So – what happens now?  When do we get the passports?”

“Home Affairs will send you an SMS once the passports are ready”, he said, “Once you get the SMS, you can come to our offices again – and we will drive you back to Home Affairs to collect the passports”.

“I thought that you guys were going to collect the passports on our behalf?” I asked.

“No.  With children’s passports, one of the parents has to be present at Home Affairs to collect the passport.  You just need to make sure to bring your ID book”.

And that’s when I had a thought:  “Well, I live closer to the Department of Home Affairs than I do to the Don’t-Q office.  Why waste my time driving to the Don’t-Q office… doubling back to Joburg in the Don’t-Q minivan… and then getting delivered back to the Don’t-Q office… when I could just drive directly to Home Affairs and collect the passports myself?”

So – that’s what I decided to do.  I would collect the passports myself.  The Don’t-Q driver had told me that I needed to wait for the SMS and bring my ID book – so, I told myself that I wouldn’t even bother with Don’t-Q… and I’d finish off the process on my own.

Sure enough – less than 2 weeks later, the SMS arrived.  The passports were ready for collection.

I drove to the centre of Joburg, and after an initial bit of confusion with one-way streets… I found the parking lot… parked my car… fought my way through the mass of touts… and wheezed my way up 5 flights of stairs to the Passport Section (2 out of 3 lifts were out of order and there was a long queue of people waiting to use the single working lift).

As usual, there were no signs and I wasn’t sure which counter I needed to approach to collect the passports.  I asked a very disinterested Home Affairs employee to help me.  He pointed me in the general direction of 3 counters where (naturally) a long queue of people waited on school benches.

“Never mind”, I told myself, “even with this queue, I’m still saving myself time by coming here directly”.

Eventually it was my turn at the counter.

“I’m here to collect my childrens’ passports”, I said brightly.

“Receipt?” said the counter-lady blankly, refusing to return my smile.

“Uh… I don’t have a receipt.  I was told to bring my ID book.  I have my ID book”, I said, offering it to her helpfully.

“You can’t collect passports without a receipt”, she said, looking me in the eye in a way that almost dared me to start putting up a fuss.

“But the Don’t-Q people said…”

“The guys from Don’t-Q know the protocol”, she interrupted, “They know that you need a receipt.  No receipt – no passport”.

It’s then that I realised that I was the glitch.  Had I phoned Don’t-Q and TOLD them of my plans to collect the passports on my own, they would have told me to collect the receipts first.   I had made a bunch of assumptions… I hadn’t bothered to check… and now I was 5 storeys up in the dirt-encrusted halls of Home Affairs… in a stuffy room packed with people… and I couldn’t get the passports.  What a WASTE of &$^@! time and energy… I started to feel the blood rushing to my face as I muttered my “Okay, well thank-you” (FOR NOTHING!!!)… to the lady behind the counter”.  (I didn’t actually verbalise the “for nothing” part – but I wanted to!).

I found a seat at the back of the room and SMS’d a ranty message to Nick – who simply replied with:  “I thought you had phoned Don’t-Q before you went?”.

Then I phoned Don’t-Q and explained my predicament.  I desperately felt the need to rant and rave… and perhaps to blame the Don’t-Q driver who hadn’t explained things properly enough for my liking or to make it clear how annoyed I was that Don’t-Q hadn’t (magically guessed?) that I was going to collect the passports on my own… and that they should have (known?) to give me the relevant receipts during our previous visit.

The Don’t-Q lady on the other side of the phone was very polite – so I held myself back from ranting and raving… only just.

She asked me what I would like to do.  Would I like to make another appointment with Don’t-Q and travel in their minivan to collect the passports (as was the initial plan).

“No!”, I barked, “I’m not moving.  I’ve driven to town, fought for parking, stood in queues and have climbed up endless stairs.  I’m not going home and starting from scratch.  When will your driver be visiting Home Affairs today?”

“We do have a driver that is going to Home Affairs today”, she said politely, “and I will make sure that he brings your receipts with him.  Are you okay with waiting?”

“I guess I have no choice”, I grumped.

“Well, our driver will be leaving here at about 1:30pm… he should get to you at around 2pm”.

“I will wait for him”, I re-grumped.

I hung up the phone and checked the time.  It was just after 12 noon.  I would need to sit in that stuffy room with the queueing people for at least 2 hours.  Waiting for the Don’t-Q driver to bring my receipts.

I considered going downstairs and getting myself a cup of coffee from somewhere.  But then I remembered, I hadn’t brought my purse.  I had enough cash to pay for the parking – that was all.

Shit.

I didn’t even have my doodle notebook with me… or something to draw with – or draw on – to keep me occupied.  I had to simply sit there… and wait.

I felt a wave of fury wash over me.

“Stupid &^#@$! government departments!!!  Why does it always have to be such a @#$%! nightmare to get anything done!?”

I glared across the room at the counter-lady who had refused to give me my passports.

I glared at the queue of people.

I glared at the dirty floor and the cracked window panes.

I glared at the broken light fittings.

And then something happened.

It was almost like a powerful thought dropped into my head out of nowhere.  And the thought went something like this:

“You can choose how to deal with this situation.  You can choose to be angry and frustrated… or you can choose another way”.

I took a deep breath, leaned back on my bench… and decided, right there, that I would choose to view the situation… differently.

I started by looking at the other people in the room.

And, instead of seeing them as masses of irritating people… there to somehow deliberately make my day miserable… I started really LOOKING at them – as individuals – as people who also had needs.

The vast majority of people in the room were poor.  While I had driven to Home Affairs in my Renault Modus… and parked in a paid parking lot, the majority of the folk in the room had caught taxis and/or walked long distances to get themselves to Home Affairs.

There was an old woman, wrapped in a blanket, who hobbled in with a crooked walking stick.  She hobbled up to the counter with a collection of dog-eared papers in her shaking hands.  The counter-lady (the same one who had sent me packing sans passports) spoke very respectfully and kindly to the old woman… taking the time to explain things to her… helping her fill in the forms.  And I suddenly saw warmth in the way she dealt with people.  She wasn’t just a devil-woman, scheming to make people frustrated and miserable… she was doing her job – and doing it well.

I looked at all the people patiently queuing.  It seemed as though they were so used to this… queueing… patiently waiting.  Nobody was grumbling under their breath… rolling their eyes… tapping their feet impatiently… or making irritable sighing noises.  Everyone just politely waited.

I was starting to feel distinctly uncomfortable and humbled by the people in the room.

The Department of Home Affairs in Johannesburg serves the poorest of the poor.  Wealthier folk (for the reasons mentioned in the bullet points at the top of this post) usually don’t show up at Home Affairs in person.  They either send their secretaries – or they pay companies like Don’t-Q to handle the schlep on their behalf.

The people in that room simply didn’t have that advantage.  And I began to realise how spoiled I am… and how much I continue to take for granted.

Even my inner-grumbling about forgetting the gold card at home… and not being able to purchase a coffee or a magazine to read – was a luxurious thought – since most people queueing in that room would have left home in the morning on a simple breakfast… and probably wouldn’t be eating again until dinner time.

I saw how many mothers carried tiny babies on their backs whilst waiting in the queue.  Others held their children on their lap.  Older men with canes and hats hobbled in and took a seat.  And waited their turn… quietly and patiently.

And not a single person seemed to be tantruming or complaining.

Just as I was beginning to feel very ashamed and shitty… I heard a voice.

“Mrs Costaras?”

I looked up at a friendly face.

“Yes?”

“My name is Beauty”, said the friendly face, “I work for Don’t-Q.  You don’t need to worry about waiting the full 2 hours for our driver.   I have spoken with the lady from Home Affairs and because they know us, and because we have reassured them that your receipts will be here in 2 hours, they have decided to let you have your passports now.  Will you come with me?”.

I followed Beauty back to the same counter with the same woman (whom I judged negatively the first time we met).

“I’m really not supposed to do this”, counter-lady whispered with a smile, “But because we know Beauty… and because she has assured us that your receipts are on the way, I’ll give you a break so you don’t have to wait here for too long”.

“Thank-you!”, I said… trying to show her that I REALLY meant it.

And 2 minutes later, I had the kids’ passports in hand, and was walking out.

As I descended flight after flight of stairs… my eyes were opened once more.  I counted 6 mothers carrying children up those stairs – and 4 men with bundled up babies in their arms.  The 4th Floor was so packed with people, I could barely push past them to get down the next flight of stairs… but again, everyone seemed so gracious… with this awful process of waiting and queueing.

Or maybe they just don’t “SEE” it as an “Awful Process”.

Maybe they view it through different eyes.  Maybe they see it as an opportunity for something better.  Maybe a South African ID book is a really BIG deal for someone who can’t get a job (without one).  Or maybe a Letter-of-Residence is HUGE for a Zimbabwean living and working in South Africa – living in perpetual fear of deportation.  Maybe most folk see the Department of Home Affairs as offering them an affordable VALUABLE service – and maybe they view that building (and even the queues they need to endure) in a positive and favourable light?

Anyway.  It was a lesson in humility for me.

I drove home and I gave thanks.

  • “Thank-you that these passports took only 2 weeks to process!”
  • “Thank-you that my family has the means to travel internationally – with nothing to stop us except for the limitations we place on ourselves”
  • “Thank-you for our South African citizenship” (many African foreigners living in our country would donate a limb for the citizenship that I take for granted).
  • “Thank-you for my British citizenship… and Nick’s Greek citizenship… which make it easy for us to travel to Europe – and also to the States”
  • “Thank-you for the people who work at Don’t-Q and who handled my situation so patiently”.
  • “Thank-you for the Department of Home Affairs… and for all the people who work there… who process hundreds of thousands of applications and people – and still manage to keep a smile on their faces”
  • “Thank-you”…