Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Incompetence is the new competence in the teen-aged South Africa

Click on the cartoon to read the conversation

As the saying goes; plant an expectation, reap disappointment. After two years of missing what people would term as the most ridiculous things about South Africa, I came back home in fresh high spirits. Loving and appreciating my country more than ever before, my attitude and view of things in SA was unhealthily positive. And I had a very rude awakening to the reality of the life I left behind. Public servants are still exercising their right to be ignorant, incompetent and unapologetic for the bad service they proudly render to ordinary citizens like me.

My rude awakening began when I decided to convert a legal and recognised license that I obtained in South Korea. I went to the Green Point traffic department to find out about the process of converting my license. I was told to contact the embassy of the country I obtained my license from and ask them for a letter translating the license into English. I did that and the process of getting the translation left me R480 poorer.

After getting the letter from the embassy, I went back to the Green Point traffic department with my hopes super high. Here I must also add that my high hopes clouded my judgment and I found myself at the traffic department wearing what I suspect the people working at the traffic department regarded as hideous clothes. How do I know? Every person I was directed to gave me an up-and-down looking-down-on-you kind of look.

With a broad smile on my face, I approached a woman who was behind the counter at Green Point and told her my reason for being at the department. She sneered at me and asked me for my documents, looked at them, handed them over to one of her colleagues to examine, then handed them back to me and instructed me to see a Mr Thomas who was in an office that is strategically placed in a place where hidden treasures from centuries long past would be found. After knocking on wrong doors, I finally found Mr Thomas' office. I felt like I had found a hidden treasure when a man sitting behind a desk, chatting to his friend told me that he was Mr. Thomas. The familiar up-and-down looking-down-on-you kind of look that Mr. Thomas gave me instantly killed my joy. This time, struggling to maintain a smile, I retold my story to Mr. Thomas.

A very short dialogue between Mr. Thomas and I went something like this:

Mr. Thomas: How long were you abroad?

Me: Two years.

Mr. Thomas: Sorry you do not qualify.(This, he said with such conviction, I felt like giving up right there and then, though at the back of my mind, I knew very well that Mr. Thomas was bs-ing me.)

Me: I do not understand because I read on the Road Traffic Management Corporation site that I can convert my license and I know someone else who has done the same.

Mr. Thomas: Well, whoever converted your friend's license does not know the law. It is illegal (at this point Mr. Thomas opened a file that contained the information I had read many times on the Road Traffic Management Corporation website and instructed me to read it).

Me: I have read this information.

Mr. Thomas: Then what don't you understand? Because if you understood it, you would not be here talking to me about converting your license because you do not qualify.

Me: I qualify and I know that my license is recognised in SA, plus I possess an international license and I have been driving on SA roads since my return with my international license.

Mr. Thomas: That's illegal. Do you know that many converted licenses were recalled last year? (With authority, he told me that more than 3000 licenses were recalled last year because they were illegal).

Tears of anger swelled up in my eyes when I realised that I was not going to get anything from Mr. Thomas – he was a very stubborn man. I do not usually cry, but my anger was just too much to contain. I broke down in front of Mr. Thomas and his friend who was obviously very amused by our conversation.

Last words from Mr. Thomas, which I struggled to digest, were that I must go to Home Affairs and get a letter stating that I was resuming citizenship. So I went to Home Affairs where I was given the very familiar up-and-down looking-down-on-you kind of look and was told to come back on Monday. As it was still very early in the morning, I decided to go to a different Home Affairs Department. So I took a taxi to Wynberg.

At the Wynberg Home Affairs Department, I shared my story in fluent Xhosa to the woman behind the counter, only to be told that the reason the Green Point Department sent me to Home Affairs was because they probably suspected that I had a fake identification document. Home Affairs referred me to my mother...hahaha! The woman told me to ask my mother for my birth certificate and take it to the traffic department. I tried with no success to explain to the Home Affairs lady that the traffic department wanted a letter from them and not a birth certificate from my mother. The woman got impatient with me and started screaming that I probably have a fake ID. Many people who were minding their own business drew nearer to me to see this “fake ID”. Again, my eyes started raining and I walked out crying.

At the end of it all, I was left with no faith in “Ubuntu” and the human race; as a result, I took the wrong bus and found myself in a strange place. I had to take the bus back to Wynberg again and start my journey home afresh.

On Monday, the following week I decided to send an email to the Road Traffic Management Corporation people. I got a response with a pdf. file as an attachment. Whoever responded to my email did not care to give my query any attention; they sent me something that I had already seen many times on the Road Traffic Management Corporation's website. A good thing they did was send me their phone number. I then called and the person said that he could not help me but would forward my query to someone in Gauteng. He did as he promised, but I did not yield anything from his action because I now became part of a string of forwards where people kept forwarding my query to different people. I do not know where the forwards ended up, but no one got back to me with a solution or answer to my questions – and this was at a higher level.

I was determined to exhaust all options before giving up, so I called the presidential hotline (was greeted by a recorded message from the president himself, President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma). I later spoke to someone, gave them my story and they told me to call a week later. I decided to give them time and called two weeks later. When I called I was told to call again as my query was being dealt with. I wonder if it has been dealt with because I decided not to waste anymore of my time on it.

The following Saturday, I decided to go to the Ottery traffic department. For the first time, I got clear directions. At Ottery, I was given a number and instructed to make an appointment with the Provincial Administrator. I spoke to a Mrs. Swartz and went to see her on Monday. A surprised Mrs. Swartz told me that Mr. Thomas gave me wrong information because anyone who needs to convert a foreign license needs a letter from the Provincial Administration office. Anyway, I got my letter with regained hope in “Ubuntu” and humanity – a big thank you to Mrs. Swartz and the woman at Ottery who gave me the correct directions.

The following Saturday, I went back to the Ottery Traffic Department where I was told to go to office 1 on the second floor. I stood outside the office for more than an hour and forty-five minutes. Traffic officers kept going in and out of the office number one and ignored me as if I was not there. I finally grabbed one man and told him my story, he dismissed me telling me that he was the only person who authorised conversions but he could not help me because they do not do conversions on Saturdays, he just had no time because he was going to test someone. So I went back home AGAIN with my hopes shattered. At least the man with a beard told me to return on Monday.

Monday I got a lift from one of my housemates to the train station. I was at the Ottery Traffic Department by 7:00am, way before they opened. Again, I went to office number one and again I was ignored for more than 30 minutes! The traffic officers were all sitting and chatting to each other in an office written “STAFF ONLY” and because I was standing right outside the door, I overheard their conversation about phones and how a Blackberry is better than some other phones blah blah. I started crying again, not that I am a cry baby, but it is very saddening to see how people wake up early in the morning to go talk about phones when people that they get paid to serve are standing in lines that are not moving.

In tears, I asked one of the friendly-looking female traffic officers to help me because I was going to be late for work and I had other personal things to deal with. The friendly woman helped me and although I finally managed to convert my license, I was too exhausted to be happy about it. I took the picture for my license in tears and so I think looking at my license will always remind me of the red tape that I had to deal with and of our poor public service.

My conclusion is that for one to work for the government, you have to meet the very serious requirement of being ignorant, incompetent and be very good at implementing red tape. I know that this is not a good generalisation as there are civil servants like Mrs. Swartz and the women who work at the Ottery Traffic department who love doing their jobs and make sure that they know what they ought to.