Inside the deranged bureaucratic belly of the Home Affairs beast

CAPE TOWN — Ayi, yay, yayi! If you want a powerful example of callous, disinterested, mindless South African bureaucracy, walk with multiple award-winning investigative writer, Jeremy Gordin, here as he tries to help a young Spanish colleague secure a visitor’s visa from Home Affairs. It’s a tribute to Gordin’s tenacity (and mental health) – and to the apparent minority of senior civil servants in that notorious department – that he succeeded at all. Juxtapose that with the thousands of ordinary citizens and foreigners who don’t have the nous, experience and contacts to ‘facilitate’ a seemingly straightforward application. Conclusion; we have a dysfunctional Home Affairs. No parade of earnest politicians over the last quarter century can counter that; check your newspaper archives. It’s Catch 22 gone beserk; you have to be insane to try and buck the system – while meekly working within the system will drive you mad. Gordin isn’t pontificating here; this is first-hand experience rendered deliciously palatable by that essential antidote to lunacy – the wry wit of a seasoned scribe. Story courtesy of Politicsweb. – Chris Bateman

Me against the Zumocracy

By Jeremy Gordin

I have a young (half my age) journalistic colleague and friend who hails from a small town in Spain and whom I’ll refer to as M.

Although he could reside in Barcelona or Madrid, or for that matter pretty much anywhere in the EU, for some reason M feels drawn to and interested in South Africa and has worked hard to understand and appreciate the place. He has looked forward inter alia to covering our great national general election, scheduled for May 8. “Whatever gets you through the night,” as we used to say in the 70s.

In November, M went along to apply for a new journalist’s visitor’s visa, which he thought would just be a formality. As you might know, such matters are handled these days by VFS, “an outsourcing and technology services specialist” that “manages visa and passport issuance-related administrative and non-discretionary tasks for its client governments”. The notation at the bottom of VFS emails reads: “VFS Global: 60 Client Governments. 139 Countries of Operation. 2722 Application Centres. Over 180 million applications processed.” According to Dr Google, the company was founded in 2001 in Mumbai, India and is based in Dubai (hello, Atul; hello, Ajay). The local staff seem mostly to be Seffricans.

But why “we” don’t use home-grown software and nous to issue visas and such-like, I cannot quite grasp; nor do I understand why the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) had to outsource its work. Perhaps reversing this is one of the things on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s lengthy to-do list; as various pundits have assured us, the president shall inter alia feed the hungry, heal the sick, make the desert bloom and fix the DHA.

Read also: Unbelievable! Home Affairs is STILL messing up child visa travel

As mentioned, M submitted his application for renewal of his journalist’s visitor’s visa at VFS at the start of November. He was told by the person there that he’d receive a response in 8-10 weeks (i.e., end-December/mid-January). He didn’t get a notification; but, as you know, the DHA is busy, or whatever, and M had to wait until 19 February to hear his application had been refused. Bear in mind he would become “undesirable” on 13 April. (For those familiar with the technicalities, M was by the way on a tourist visa, having earlier left the country when his previous journalist’s visitor’s visa expired.)

Why the refusal? M was informed that (a) he had not presented proof of “sufficient funds” and (b) had not attached a SAPS police clearance.

However, M had done both. But perhaps the DHA hadn’t noticed the receipt for the fee paid to VFS for obtaining and submitting the police clearance and perhaps someone misplaced his/her calculator thus failing to convert Euros into Rands.

So, M returned to VFS – with an attorney, nogal – and pointed out that there’d been a minor oversight and asked whether his application could please be “reassessed”.

A BIG mistake – though M didn’t know this then, nor did the attorney, and nor, apparently, did the VFS official. It seems one just can’t do that; turns out one must make a formal “appeal” – or it’s cheers, big ears. However, the VFS official accepted M’s “reassessment” re-submission without any qualms, saying there’d be a response within two weeks.

But time marched inexorably onwards, as it’s won’t to do. February turned into March and March marched to the beginning of April. It’s also important to know that when an application is refused, one is allowed 10 days only in which to appeal it; by April, the 10-day window was therefore long gone. But the VFS official said no worries, the reassessment was “in the system”.

M, notwithstanding being a chilled Spaniard, mañanaCuando calienta el sol, and all that, grew a trifle anxious. If he became “undesirable,” he’d have to fly back to Spain to re-apply – airline tickets cost mucho dinero – and he would also miss the election – a re-application takes close to three months, if not longer – and he would have to kiss his (local) partner goodbye for an unforeseen period. Young(er) people take these separations seriously.

When officials screw up your paperwork without a blush and seem not to care that you’re going to be kicked out, then, as calm and level as you might be, the matter turns personal. You start feeling as though no one wants you around and that they don’t care either way. Trouble is that the latter is true; the DHA don’t give a tinker’s damn.

Malusi Gigaba, travel visa, child birth certificates
Malusi Gigaba’s Visa Requirements. More of Zapiro’s magic available at www.zapiro.com.

Remember that the previous incumbent minister was one Malusi “Gigabyte” Gigaba, who had about as much interest in setting up an effective and caring ministry as Donald Trump has in poetry; the present boss is Siyabonga Cwele, who probably has about as much commitment to a functional DHA as my bull terrier, Olsen. Probably less. Before them were a bunch of ministers whose disinterest was truly breath-taking, including inter alios IFP leader, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi. (I’ve been around a while – and I take notes.)

Meanwhile, with only a week to go, M wrote to everyone he could find in the department – all the main manne what count – and I did the same.

Ironically, by the way, if I could dwell in Barcelona, I’d rather do that than live in Joey’s – even though, in the 1490s, my ancestors, or some of them, were booted out of Spain, lock, stock and barrel. Anyway, it’s probably handy that Jews have gone through expropriation sans compensation “in all the civilised languages,” as George Steiner once wrote, i.e., that I carry the Jewish-Spanish experience of five centuries ago in my DNA. Consider: it might soon be revealed – after the election perhaps? – that pre-colonial era folk once lived where I reside now, and I might have to give up “my” tiny swatch of land in Johannesburg.

M and I wrote to the DHA officials that clearly there had been a misunderstanding – and asked whether, without apportioning blame, we could all just accept that M seemed not to be an axe-murderer, the necessary documentation existed, and, jeez, couldn’t he just get a piece of paper without being kicked out and being forced to spend a great deal of money?

Neither of us had the courtesy of a reply. As for the fore-mentioned VFS official, she kept saying she was waiting for the DHA response. Then, when M finally received a one-liner from the department (here I paraphrase): “There is no such thing as a ‘reassessment’; appeal or be damned; period past for appealing? Get lost” – the VFS official said in effect, “Well, you wanted to do this, I never promised you a rose garden, did I?”

We asked everyone we could find for assistance, e.g., someone attached to a political party (not the ANC), who was said to be able to work “magic” in such matters. But, with five days to go, M, in the immortal words of Barry Fantoni, “was nowhere, man”. He girded his loins to transfer some of those Euros so he could buy his ticket home.

Read also: Immigration official turned ‘fixer’: How the Guptas compromised Home Affairs

What to do? I do not have Cwele’s telephone number; and for some reason Jacob G Zuma hasn’t called for years.

There are many, many things and people that p*ss me off big-time [i]. But what gets straight up my nose (almost) above all is what William Shakespeare described in Hamlet as “The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely/ … the law’s delay, / The insolence of office and the spurns/ That patient merit of the unworthy takes” (i.e., “The insults that a forbearing/diligent person receives from the unworthy”).

In other words, the callousness, disinterest, insolence, time-wasting and moronicism of bureaucrats. Let a bureaucrat say to me “It’s not possible” – and, unless s/he has a very, very good reason, and even if s/he does, I strip my moer, sometimes I even strop my kukri.

But I’m getting too doddery to unearth my AK-47 from the garden. Besides, I’m a pinko-liberal and my battle-cry is therefore “moderation or death” [ii]. What to do?

I hit, as it were, my mobile telephone. I estimate I spent about five hours in total calling everyone I could find, working my way up the bureaucratic ladder, including all the officials to whom M and I had previously written. No one even answered the phone. Oh yeah, one senior official did; he said he hadn’t seen the email from M – too many emails on his machine. But anyway, the rules were the rules. I suggested politely that perhaps I should try to find the DG or the minister. Do what you like was his response.

Then bingo (alpha)! Continuing my crawl up the bureaucratic ladder, I reached the “assistant,” young and feisty, to one of the bigger wigs. She said I’d never reach her boss, though she gave me his number, and she also gave me the cell numbers for two other big wigs, X and Y. Which one should I call, I asked? Well, she said, she couldn’t “advise” me but, she added, Y was a decent straight-shooter.

Bingo (beta)! Y didn’t answer my call – he was, surprise, surprise, in meetings all day (what do they meet about all day?). But he responded with a message: that I could call after 5pm. I did and he even listened to what I had to say. By now there were four days to go. I get it, Y said, but it’s not my department. “Tell you what though, we’re in meetings wall-to-wall for the next two days, but I’ll discuss the matter in full with Mr X [whose department it was – and who had not deigned to reply to one of M’s emails] and I promise that I’ll get him to call you before 8am tomorrow morning.”

X did not call; so, I called Y again, forwarding emails from the VFS official that demonstrated she had accepted the attempt at a reassessment. The next day – two days to goodbye-M-day – Y sent a copy of M’s new visa to my iPhone.

Was this a remarkable accomplishment? Should I – or rather Y – get the Order of the Baobab? Ought I to refer you to the ancient Islamic, Jewish and Persian tradition that tells us the world is saved from being submerged in its follies and wickedness by the presence in each generation of a small number of 36 just men [people, if you prefer], who operate  inconspicuously, hardly recognised by others or even themselves. Should we consider Y one of them?

Does the presence of Y – the chink in the darkness he represents – mean that we at Winterfell could defeat the army of the dead [maybe the army of the zombies?] who are about to take over Seffrica again via the ballot box?

Tempting as it is, I’ll not suggest any of the above, especially as much worse things have happened to people at the hands of the DHA[iii].

But I must say the small light in the darkness represented by Y and that I achieved something through dint of sheer cussedness did make me feel exhilarated – and even “distinguished” in the sense used by HD Thoreau in his book Walden; or, Life in the Woods:

“I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.”


END NOTES

[i] Here, not in order of importance, are a few: Under-done fillet steak. Clueless Seffrican rugby players and coaches. Seffrican members of BDS (they should be frying other fish; or further grilling the fillet). Myself. Politicsweb readers who believe apartheid was a golden era. Peter Bruce. The dearth (death?) of court reporters. PC versions of the Passover seder. Andile Mngxitama. Diabetes. Donald Trump. Eusebius McKaiser. That eNCA weather person Annette Venter doesn’t know I exist. Anti-Semites. Pro-Semites. Disrespecters of Freud. Brian “bunny” Molefe (ex-Eskom). And so on.

[ii] Christopher Hitchens (disrespectfully) coined the phrase about Isaiah Berlin; p 151, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, London: Verso (2000).

[iii] An article by Jonny Steinberg appeared in Business Day on 5 April – eight days before M had to leave the RSA. The article was headlined “The disgraceful aim of home affairs: to ruin people’s lives,” and carried the sub-head: “The department ceased to function in 2010 and cynically fights to remain dysfunctional”. Read it if you can here but it is, alas, secreted behind one of those annoying pay walls. Steinberg took the trouble to read a Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) judgement against the DHA. A full bench found that the behaviour of the then minister (presumably Gigabyte) and his then DG was “disgraceful,” “unconscionable,” “deliberately obstructive” and “dilatory”. In case you don’t know, those phrases coming from judges amount to a very serious uitkxk-parade. The efforts by 473 people to get resident status, visas, etc., had all ended in a void. Through sheer incompetence and lack of care, lives had been destroyed – not literally but you know what I mean. Steinberg has generally always been polite about, if not supportive of, the ANC. But even he commented: “We talk of a lost decade. The phrase slides easily from the tongue. Here it is in all its darkness. And this is just one government department. Across the country, a vast public apparatus has lost its soul. Will it ever be retrieved?”