MY lovely plump girlfriend says: Why are you bothering with the renewal of your South African passport? You have your blue Australian one after all. The thing is, I am too loyal to South Africa; the Karoo bushes that I always go on about in my books are in me. You know how the saying goes: you can take the man out of the bushes…
And so it happens that I am dropped off in front of Maynard Mall, Wynberg, at 10.30 that morning. The Uber driver doesn't even ask, he just knows: right in front of the entrance. I enter the hall one level below ground and there, on the right, is where I have to report to. Two doorways lead to the hall for passports, IDs, birth and death certificates. In front of both is a line of people. And then, in the wide, dimly lit corridor, there are four flat benches without backrests, because you shouldn't sit here and fall asleep. All four are also full of people.
Not knowing what goes for what, I shuffle as modestly as possible to the back of row number one in front of doorway number one. And I'm immediately approached by a woman who looks a lot like Edie in the documentary film Grey Gardens, about Jackie Kennedy's family in their cat- and raccoon-infested villa in the Hamptons.
I'm digressing now, but over the next two-and-a-half days at Home Affairs I found that it was my salvation, and then again, it wasn't. Because no wandering thought or evocation of an idyllic image, say for example of the rainforests near my town on the eastern tip of the Australian continent, can tear me away from the here and now of that waiting game in the diverse spaces of Maynard Mall.
A man in a blue uniform and with a badge like Edie's politely leads me downstairs. At level three below street level, in a dimly lit hellhole of parked cars and exhaust fumes, I find the queue of people; I guess more or less 150. So, I get to be number 151. On day one, I did not arrive with water and a sandwich. I'm standing there green, I've never even been to Maynard Mall, and all I can do is to turn my senses on full blast.
The procedure is as follows: you move at a snail's pace in the queue until, after two or so hours, you are allowed to go up the escalator to that brightly lit corridor with its four benches and two queues. There, Edie is waiting with an indigo headscarf, folded in trendy style, the concierge at the two gateways that lead to the sacred place, the hall where the desired documents are issued. First, just this: it doesn't help to speak in Standard Afrikaans about the Departement van Binnelandse Sake or to try to be a smartass with #departmentofpassportsandpatience. That's Home Affairs for you, finish en klaar.
The first day. My legs become stiff from standing for such a long time. For starters, I arrived way, way too late. And where are my food supplies to sustain me? But the people in front of me and behind me are merciful, everyone is merciful. At some point, I leave the queue to buy coffee and a donut upstairs and they allow me to return to my place. Behind me, two white women, a rare species in the line, spread their travel blanket on the bare cement floor and open a cooler box, revealing last night's fried boerewors, mini bags of ketchup, white-bread sandwiches and tea from a thermos flask that I can smell.
At some point — I was number 50, I think — an almighty 4x4 drives into the parking garage and the line of people opens up like Moses' Red Sea so that he (it was definitely a man) can drive through, but not to go shopping at Shoprite. No, all four doors and the boot fly open and out steps a muscular man and a grandmother and lots of little ones, all with plastic bags full of food and drinks — KFC, Coke, popcorn and so on. These are refreshments for their dear relatives who alerted them via WhatsApp that they are languishing at numbers 78, 79 and 80 in the queue and if rescue services don't come immediately… Oh, the compassion. And I'm not being sarcastic, it really struck me.
That first day, I move inch by inch, take the escalator to the next floor, and am finally able to sit on the bench nearest the holy gate, my buttocks tired and sore. There are only four people in front of me, just four. And honestly, I think I turned ashen-faced; it's half-past three, and Edie slowly pushes the gates of Home Affairs closed as she looks over her shoulder at the withered people on the benches.
Day two. It is 5.30 in the morning when the Uber drops me in front of Maynard Mall. In that twilight hour, with workers on their way to their respective jobs, walking to catch taxis, the mall is not even open. And yet, the queue starts right there on the sidewalk. The prayer of blessing of our Dopper dominee in Burgersdorp, so elegiac for me, enters my mind: May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you.
At 6am, the mall doors open and to my dumbfounded surprise I don't make it to the well-lit upper corridor with its benches — there are already too many people — but must return to the hellhole of a parking garage. At least this time I have a fat sandwich, guava juice, biltong and Simba raisins and peanuts. Only in South Africa do you get that mix of sweet and salty snacks. I am hopeful. I clock in here at number 14 in the underground queue. At 12.30, I sail upwards like some pole dancer or tadpole, and after another hour I get a seat on the bench farthest from the entrance to Home Affairs.
It's heaven up there. In front of me is a shop called BLING, even pinker than Bibi Slippers' volume of poetry, Soekenjin, and from the door comes a silvery gold, shiny plastic China smell (is it rude to say that?). Behind our bench, where about eight of us sit waiting, buttock-to-buttock, there is another queue — not for Home Affairs, I realise with relief, but for Capitec. A woman with beautiful breasts as huge as brown watermelons, that new, perfectly round variety, takes out first one then the other for her baby, wrapped in a Pep Stores blanket. A Rasta man moves past in a kind of step-dance fashion, in green clouds and with baby blue Crocs.
In the meantime, I take out my Simba packet for the two little ones with open arms next to me, but only after asking the mother with a third bundle snuggled on her back. And then there is an elderly woman in a wheelchair who manoeuvres her cane in between her hip and the armrest of the wheelchair and digs her knitting out of a plastic bag — the only old-school person I see in those two-and-a-half days. The rest are all in Adidas and Uzzi and ripped jeans and have astoundingly glossy black hairstyles, something like Amy Winehouse but with a Wynberg twist, and street fashions I've never seen before: I am dumbfounded, honestly, by the people around me.
Then, around 1.30 that afternoon, my co-queuers and I have moved to bench number two; that is to say, just one bench from the holy gates. My guava juice long gone, the crushing news comes: the system is down. Edie walks triumphantly up and down past the BLING store and past the benches with waiting people and to the end where the escalator goes down and where there is a line of 150 or even 180 people waiting in the by now suffocating, gas-filled parking garage. Then she marches back again, but measuredly, and says: And don't think it's just us. It is Home Affairs right across the country. The system is down. Everywhere. Our officials are on the line to get an update on the offline situation. Please be patient.
Everyone becomes as quiet as mice: the mother with the breasts out of pure compassion, because actually she's in the Capitec queue, the boy here next to me who discovers a container of Mageu in his mother's pocket, also the Rasta man and the elderly knitting lady, all shocked to silence. And then, just before everyone descends forever into that pit of utter despondency, somewhere from hidden speakers in the ceiling come the invigorating sounds of Kylie Minogue. How lovely, I thought, as if just for me, and how considerate of Home Affairs.
By three o'clock that afternoon, the system is back up. But us benchers are not stupid. We know there's only half an hour left before Home Affairs closes. Day two and we're doomed, we're not going to make it inside. It's impossible. I throw my backpack over my shoulders. The mother next to me ties her child on her back again. The grandmother puts her knitting back in the plastic bag. But wait, wait, here comes Edie with scraps of paper in her hand. I get number 54. The mercy: I made it to 54. That means tomorrow there are only 53 people ahead of me before I can enter the holy gate.
Day three. I boldly arrive at Maynard Mall only at 8am. I have my ticket: number 54. Mos. Enter through the wide entrance with KFC on the left and Nando's on the right, the palpable excitement of fried, shredded, smoked portions of chicken all around. I arrive in the brightly lit corridor and again, to my surprise, I have to stand in a queue, but at least at the top, and after an hour I am grateful to find a seat. By now I feel clapped out and open my notebook and start reading the names of frogs that I copied the previous day from South African Frogs: A Complete Guide. Shovel-footed squeaker, yellow-spotted tree frog, Cape Mountain rain frog (at Cape Point), long-toed tree frog, guttural toad, and so on.
And then I am inside. Just like that. The hallowed hall of the green passport. It's balmy, cool and peaceful in here, with an officer in a beautiful Home Affairs frock in each cubicle, equally calmly completing final formalities: a passport photo, your biometrics, right and left thumbprint only, your signature, one and two and a third time, please, and R600 at the cashier. Over and out. After four days, a happy SMS to collect my brand new 10-year green passport, even though I also have to stand in a queue for it, but a short one at least.
Back at home, I go out for a caffè latte with my friend in her new tent dress. Just before we walk into the cafe, she takes my arm and we both look up. Look there, do you see those white stripes in the sky, it's the guys doing cloud-seeding again. I know for sure that they caused the 2022 flood.
I take her hand off my arm and step away slightly: I'd rather queue in the mall's parking garage, fried chicken drumstick in hand.
♦ VWB ♦
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