I arrive at 9.19 am. The car park is full. It’s not like I knew it wouldn’t be, but still. My heart sinks further. I join the queue outside the licensing department off Hyslop Road. We’re already at least 10 deep outside the gate and the stern security guard says we must wait.
A man soon joins the queue behind me. He’s so close, I can almost feel his breath on my back. It’s time for the awkwardness to start. I don’t want to be rude but Covid, dude. So I pluck up my courage for fear of being perceived to be social-distancing OCD and ask him to stand back. I think he thinks I’m rude. I feel bad. Ahead of me are people who’ve taken time off work to be legally compliant in terms of having a car licence.
I’m lucky to be on leave. I’m using my own time to do what needs to be done. As we wait, it occurs to me that we’ve really not put our minds to making technology work for us. We are worse off now than we were in terms of buying a car licence 20 years ago. How can service delivery get worse the better technology gets? I don’t get it.
Two men in front of me give up. They say they’ll try again tomorrow. Maybe the outside queue has been designed to get rid of the lightweights. They’re not committed enough, you see. I give them a sympathetic smile, but honestly I’m happy to see them go. It means I move up two places in the queue.
It’s 9.34 am and the stern security guard motions to allow some of us to move inside the gate. It feels like a small victory. We get our temperature checked and our particulars taken down by a grumpy guard. He asks where I live and I start giving him my street address. He repeats the question sarcastically. He wanted the town I live in, not the whole address shebang. I’m not bloody psychic, I say. (But in my head. He’s intimidating and I fear he’ll chuck me out.) Now we must sit and wait outside in a makeshift tent on 25 seats laid out in accordance with social distancing.
And so begins a bizarre dance of musical chairs. A man near the front stands up. He’s so over this, his pants have slipped right down his butt, but he doesn’t bother pulling them up. You just get comfy on chairs and then the line moves up one. Everyone comes in the gate from the queue outside with the same pained look on their faces.The security guards have egos the size of Jupiter. They march up and down checking everyone out. They’re pretty annoyed that you’re here, it seems. You’re inconveniencing them.
I’ve brought my own pen as I don’t like sharing during Covid. A man approaches me to ask if I have a pen he can borrow. Arrrgh. I have to lend it. I feel too bad not to, but I really, really don’t want to. Mostly we move up one chair at a time. Then suddenly we move up two. It’s given us hope. It’s a big triumph. Hey, we take what joy we can get in this strange world where it feels like we’re no longer the adults. We’re trying to behave. We’re so scared we’ll do something wrong and incur the wrath of the security men.
It’s hot in the tent on a cool, cloudy day. I’d hate to be here in 36 degree heat. Many people are wearing their masks on their mouths not their noses. One woman won’t sit on the chairs. She stands the whole time. I think of how I will feel with the holy grail of my car licence in my hand. I imagine the elation as I wait, wait and wait some more. We move three chairs. Yippeee! I am now 13 chairs away from the door where I’ve seen there are a whole lot more chairs inside. I wish the security guards would pay attention to the mask-wearing abilities, or lack of them, of the crowd.
The man returns my pen. As I rub my handbag gel sanitiser on it, a second man asks to borrow it. I sigh but hand it over.The queue hasn’t moved for an hour. Talk among the few seated near me, is that it’s teatime so we must wait while the tellers have a break. They’re speaking in Zulu but I pick up that they are angry. They have places they need to be. Precious jobs. “There’s no such thing as service delivery here,” says one in English for my benefit and we all agree. “Every government department is like this. The customer is never first.” We speak of Home Affairs, the Labour Department, grant queues, getting your driver’s licence renewed. I tell them it feels like punishment for doing the right thing. We’re united in our annoyance. We still have some spirit at this point.
Suddenly the security guard approaches the most outspoken of us. He speaks to him sternly in Zulu and walks away. “What did he say?’ I ask, worried that our rebellion has been noticed. He laughs. “No, he scolded me because my mask had slipped off my nose.” Two seats away there’s a man who has pulled his mask under his chin. He’s heard our exchange and I playfully shake my finger at him. He smiles sheepishly and covers up. The queue has still not moved.
Three men are fed up. They simply walk into the licencing office past the security guards. Those of us sitting obediently look at each other incredulously. No one says a word. We’re too cowed. One man says he’s been here four times and has had to abandon it each time, after fruitless hours of waiting.
Now to cut a long story short. Eventually, I got inside just after 11 am. There are four rows of chairs to continue the waiting game. I saw two people get to the front of the queue only to be turned away because they didn’t have a proof of address. They were livid. I walk out at close to 12.30 pm.
Instead of feeling happy I have my licence, I feel flat and defeated. Crushed by a system that’s screwed all of us over. It’s appalling that government thinks it’s okay to treat the public like this. It’s not. Wake up, Department of Transport. Make a damn plan. Get more tellers. Do what needs to be done. Use the taxes we pay to help us, not mess us around.
This is a perennial problem that’s getting worse and we expect more. Public perceptions are powerful. Remember Gauteng’s E-tolls? My wish for you this weekend is that, like me, your car licence doesn’t need to be renewed any time soon. That’s worth celebrating.