It is 34 degrees outside. Hotter in the tent where two dozen of us have been banished outside the Howick licensing office. For two-and-a-half hours we sit, wait, move up a seat, wait, repeat. Cashiers walk off with no explanation, the queue stalls for no reason. Will we make the cut-off?
Eventually the annual ordeal, made not much worse by Covid-19 regulations, is over and I drive off, legal again. My timing was fortunate. Days later protesters barricaded the uMngeni municipal offices, making licence renewal impossible. They were objecting, not to the levels of service being provided, but that jobs for pals were going to the wrong bunch of pals.
I thought as I waited, about the thousands upon thousands of people sitting in electricity queues, water queues, passport queues, social security queues. These mute processions unite us in anxiety, turning routine functions into moments of existential dread and waste. What a difference it would make to so many lives to have a bureaucracy that works. Imagine how much time and labour would be liberated if all these state institutions caught up to the third industrial revolution.
The theory is that we should have an “effective, efficient and development-orientated public service”, according to the National Development Plan. The reality is a labyrinthine mess presided over by party hacks, sadistic jobsworths, managers whose skills are better suited to running Gulags, and assorted sheltered employment dimwits.
Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once said: “Reality is that which continues to exist even when you stop believing in it.”
No one shuffling along in the queues which strangle every public building in South Africa believes there will ever be an alignment between a crushing reality and a limp belief that they are entitled to “a high standard of professional ethics” on the part of public servants, and the “efficient, economic and effective use of resources” promised by the Constitution.
But I can tell you where you can find these things. Last week’s hailstorm smashed our roof, solar panels, car, fence and much else besides. It could have been the bombardment of Aleppo, and we felt shell-shocked afterwards. I phoned the roof guy, the solar guy, the Internet guy, the TV guy, the fence guy. They came, they fixed, they went. From the moment the storm hit to the final snap of a toolbox took 42 hours.
Everyone worked with a smile, and they did it without being bribed. I don’t feel ripped off, as I do when I pay my rates and electricity and water accounts. On the contrary, I am relieved, and pleased, on my own behalf but also because the storm got all sorts of cash flows going that had been cut off by lockdown.
It’s pretty obvious that when the cause for our poor economy is being sought, it’s not because small businesses are not doing their job.
We object, as we should, to corruption, and we blame it for some of our woes. But a booming economy would be able to shrug off a respectable amount of looting, and good governance would mean being able to have things done well and on time by a state as eager to serve its citizens as an artisan is to put one’s world back together after it’s been smashed by giant hailstones.
It feels like such a small ambition to want bureaucrats to do what bureaucrats do. But when they do, they make life predictable and stable, and productive.
Having to inquire whether an office which should be open is indeed open before one goes to renew a licence, and calculating the odds of coming away with a disc, is a waste.
Hesitating before calling the call centre to report the latest electricity blackout because there will be no answer, is demoralising. This breeds fatalism and defeatism.
One voter up in Mthubathuba said before the recent by-elections: “We will vote until we have found the one who will help us because it’s like we’re in Egypt, we are in Pharaoh’s hands. Greed is the problem. There is no one better, no matter which party leads.”
And so we wait, hopeless, in queues, bottling our rage, throttling our dreams.
Imagine if we didn’t have to build disappointment into our thinking, time-wasting into our planning, anger-management into our interactions, bribes into our budgets, imagine what a storm of success we’d whip up.