Sharing the friendliness and frustrations of life in the queue

2014-04-03 00:00

THE Department of Home Affairs and I are not on the friendliest of terms. The problem is registering marriages. The Department of Home Affairs — let’s call it DoHA for short — has designated me as an official marriage officer. It’s a kind of bargain. I perform the marriage ceremony and in return DoHA recognises the marriage as legal and registers it in the population register.

It’s nice for the people at DoHA because they don’t have to do the marriage. It’s nice for the couple because they can get married in a pretty church. Actually, for those who want their marriage vows to be made in an atmosphere of reverence and prayer, it’s rather important. The system, however, is not so nice for me.

Long, long ago all I had to do once the marriage had been solemnised was to put into an envelope two copies of the official marriage register forms, which the couple had signed, and post it. If I marked the envelope “official”, I didn’t even have to pay postage.

I admit that although convenient, the system had weaknesses. The system assumed that the post office would actually deliver it to DoHA, and that once in DoHA it actually went to the right office. Those are two major assumptions which you cannot make in South Africa.

So DoHA said: “You can’t post them any more. You must bring the documents to us.” That’s a bit inconvenient for those of us who live in Howick. It involves a half-hour journey each way and finding parking in the city (and nobody, unless the happy couple feels generous, pays for the petrol), but it seemed a reasonable request. We went to the office, were allowed to jump the queue and simply put the documents into a box on the counter, signing a book to say we had done so. It took, maybe, 10 minutes.

But the system was not foolproof. There was no guarantee that the office staff in DoHA actually processed the documents. I know that from personal experience, when the happy bride, a year after the wedding, would apply for a passport or an identity document and be told there was no record of her marriage. And, I guess, there was no guarantee either that offending clergy people had actually filled in the documents correctly, leading to protracted correspondence and complications.

So DoHA changed the system yet again. Now, the marriage officer must not only take the documentation to the DoHA office, but must hand it in person (no, you can’t send your secretary) to a DoHA official, who will check the documentation and sign that he or she has received it. While that makes good sense, the difficulty is that the DoHA officials in the office of births, marriages and deaths, are dealing at the same time with 100 other people who are there to register babies, register deaths and query errors. There are, at any one time, only two officials on duty. The queues are very long.

For a short time, DoHA went modern. At the entrance you announced your business and were given a numbered ticket. You sat in the crowd and waited until your number was called — “Ticket number 127, go to counter 15”. That has not lasted. The number system has been dropped. Now a security guard merely gestures you to take your place at the end of the queue. The queue might well be right out of the door and down the stairwell. My two recent visits to lodge marriage certificates took three hours each.

The wait has its interests. I arrive outside Home Affairs early — but by 7 am the queue has already reached Lambert Street, 75 metres up the road. There is no need to have breakfast first. A woman selling fruit, chips and chocolates wanders up the queue plying her trade. One day, perhaps, an enterprising entrepreneur will sell coffee too. At about 8.10 am, the doors of DoHA open and suddenly there is a second queue coming in from the side, and other people who simply jump both queues. Because you have no idea who they are — perhaps officials, perhaps the director himself or herself — you make no protest. Eventually you make it in. I need the second floor. Already there are 75 people crammed into a tiny office.

The queue moves in ways that seem unpredictable. We sit on rows of benches. As one by one each person reaches the counter, the people on the front bench shuffle along and one person from the bench behind fills the gap, and one person on the bench behind that moves to fill that gap, and so through the rows of benches. There is slow but constant motion, which is as well, lest we develop bedsores. We are a motley crew — elderly Zulu women, anxious Indian pastors, a few ill-at-ease-looking white folk who don’t understand the queuing system, and any number of young African mothers.

This is Africa. The room is not silent. Jokers in the crowd make jibes, or engage the DoHA staff in dialogue. Most of it is in Zulu and I miss some of the jokes. At first, generous queuers, seeing my clerical collar, allow me to jump a few places. Eventually, I am squeezed between two young mothers, both pretty girls, both of them breast-feeding. It inhibits my conversation. These days I am not entirely familiar with shapely bare bosoms belonging to women I do not know well. I try to avert my gaze and look instead at the adorable babies on each side, sucking away but gazing with interest at an unfamiliar face.

Finally, I too reach the front bench and then the counter itself. The actual negotiation with the DoHA clerk takes all of three minutes, and at last I am free. Yet I leave without irritation, feeling at one with the wider South African family with whom I have shared the generosity, the friendliness and the frustrations of African life. I skip down the stairs, smiling at all whom I meet, assuring them (untruthfully) that it won’t take too long.

I have had no breakfast. I consider buying an apple from the fruit seller, but knowing that all the fruit has been handled by previous customers testing for ripeness, I opt for Mugg and Bean instead. There is a limit to how far one takes being African.

But I can’t really afford three hours of waiting at DoHA for every marriage I perform.

Perhaps I will advise the next couple just to live in sin.

• Ron Nicolson is a retired Anglican priest and academic.

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