One morning I walked up to the South African Home Affairs building. As the sun came up and illuminated the city buildings and the vendors set up their stalls, it felt good to be in town early. I thought the day pregnant with potential. At the door, I found a polite young man posted there to announce to that home affairs had moved to the customs office on the foreshore, in another part of the city centre. I had no forewarning of this development and I had at that point, naively, hoped to be picking up my work permit for which I had applied just over a month before. The English man, who arrived just after I did and was kind enough to give me a lift to the new premises, was astonished. His four year battle for a permanent visa had put him through many surprises (including a new criteria for applications two years in) but a surprise change of venue shocked him.
Since then I have come to find the customs building familiar. Out of the central train station, I have now taken many walks down the wide boulevard of Adderly street, crossing at the signal of the green man, past the statues of Jan and Maria Van Riebeck, towards the harbour. I pass the international convention centre with its glass exterior and walk under the elevated N2 highway, just around the corner from its mouth where it descends from its imperious height to disgorge its load of tenacious morning traffic. There, caught between the highway and the harbour stands a tall concrete edifice, the customs building. For the most part, the new premises has not changed with the way the temporary permit section works. You come in, you queue in a series of seats and then you speak to somebody. Like in the old building, the Home Affairs officials stand behind a long counter and wear a smart uniform. When you make a submission, or need to enquire about the progress of your application, they walk behind a screen or into a room (rooms? Warren? I don’t know I can never see what they do back there) for an indeterminate length of time. When they return (all that is certain is that they will return sometime) they shall tell you to come check in 4 weeks, to wait for an sms or a phone call from them, to provide additional documentation or to simply to check again on Monday.
But somehow, the old premises had blinded me to that curious group of people I now find to be common to Home Affairs; agents. At the foreshore premises, with the N2 looming large in the window, my attention was drawn for the first time to the three defined queues. One is for submissions, another for collections, endorsements and information (invariably the longest) and a third for agents. Agents, the sign above the counter informs us, may do submissions, collections or endorsements all in one place. In my recent and numerous visits to home affairs, I have realised that there are not a great variety of these agents. I can now recognise each of them by their face, and also, their laughter. While they wait on the home affairs officials, they make jokes, they eat snacks and they sit about their rows of chairs as if they are at play. Since they are all familiar with each other and are few, they have no need to follow a chronological system among themselves. As a matter of fact, they go out of their way to look out for each other. They have no other concerns it seems, such as a job or studies, except for their home affairs errands. Across in the collections/endorsements queue however, there are instead frequent flare-ups about who is in what position and whether or not someone can jump the three hour queue and visit the front briefly for information (needless to say, the visit is seldom brief). We, the cohort from various countries, where French or Korean is heard as often as the cry of an infant, stew in our indignation at the slow pace of things and make brief friendships out of our common plight, equally, short term enemies over queues and protocol.
Agents, I have been told, are people who can make applications on behalf of foreign nationals not in the country or who cannot speak English or any of the other local languages. However, before I embarked on my work permit campaign, I was introduced to an agent myself. After a referral from a colleague offering me permanent work, I met her in a car park at the university, where she explained to me that if I handed over to her all the correct documentation (she was quite verbose on the details) I would get my permit without any hassle or much delay. It all sounded very enticing until she told me she wanted four thousand rands for her services and that the fee did not include the hefty application fee. I balked and told her, later (by email), that I didn’t have that sort of money. That was, however, not strictly true. Rather what I really meant was that I didn’t see why, given how she told me how straight forward the whole process would be, it would cost me so much. Sure, I can be quite a miser (I have a modest income after all), but I can also be a stickler for principle. Why should I, who only has a part time job, pay someone else to go into town (a journey I enjoy very much) and submit documents on my behalf? I did not, however, say this to her in person. Instead, work promised to come up with three quarters of the fee and I didn’t think it such a bad idea after all. But when I approached her by phone and email about this arrangement she didn’t get back to me. So I was, in the end, compelled to stick to my principles and get the application done myself. Of course, the gentleman from the DRC in the queue next to me one day (with an iPod far superior to mine so I had much respect for him) said that the agents bribe the home affairs officials to get the job done. He also said that the agents were former employees of home affairs and so were on chummy terms with the their former co-workers behind the desk. I was not sure I could believe the first claim, but I the evidence for the second was plain enough to see from the way the bonhomie on the agent camp flowed freely over the counter to the officials on the other side. I also noticed one morning that, in the time it took three officials to visit the agents queue, the foreign nationals had only one. And that one official came to the counter with all her defences up.
“You can’t expect me to know where it is” she said to me. I had finally worked my way to the front of the queue after thwarting numerous attempts to usurp my place in the queue.
“But surely you can find the file somehow? Don’t you file these files somehow?” I said.
“No. I don’t know where Louis put it. He is the only who knows where he put it. There is no way for me to find out where he put it.”
“But can’t you phone him?”
“No, I can’t, he’s on leave. Even if I phoned him, he won’t know where it is.”
The dragon would not take any responsibility and showed little compunction. On two previous visits, I had spoken to two different people who both admitted that they could not find my file and they suspected that Louis knew where it was. They showed a deep sense of humility and even promised to call Louis and find out what he had done with it. Each of them promised to phone me when they located the and took my phone number so they could do so. They had even gone so far as to apologise for the fiasco. Louis himself was eager to help until he went on strike and lost the file. But the dragon lady was different. When I complained that Louis had first gone on strike with the rest of the public sector, and then gone on leave, and then incredibly, seemed to be on another week of leave, she used my story in her defence.
“When I go on strike, I don’t leave things properly, no. I just go like that” she said.
When I complained that the agents get better treatment than the rest of us she launched into a long tirade against the system that overworked the home affairs officials, that all forms – agent or no agent – went to Pretoria in a fair system, that there were only fifteen people employed in the Pretoria head office processing applications (where they are all sent these days), and finally that it was in fact them, the officials, who protected us from the agents. She then pointed to a man at the counter next to me inspecting a large pile of documents and said that he had been misled by an agent and now he was having to do things over again. He gave the two of us a fleeting glance in a way which I could trace neither anger nor submission before he returned to inspecting his documents. My conversation with the Dragon was turning into a row and had began to feel guilty about holding up the extensive queue behind me. But the dragon continued.
“I am tired of telling lies. From eight o’clock to four o’clock I just tell lies. To the next guy, the next one, all of them. I am just telling lies all day. We don’t process these forms. We are just at the front. We don’t know what is happening.”
The next day I woke up early to go run lest Tobre lose all interest in my body. My left knee had been acting up (something to do with the worn shoes I guess) and I put on a support. I put on plasters to protect my nipples and a lubricant between my thighs to reduce the chaffing. On the way my knee hurt but I kept running. When I got back home I decided to make cookies for my colleagues at work. They could bake while I had a shower, I thought. Tobre had left her mother’s recipe on the door of the fridge. Butter, icing sugar, flour, oil and corn flour. But then I tried to be precise about the measurements and used a scale. In that way, I used up all the butter in the fridge and was short on icing sugar. There was not nearly enough oil either. I walked across the road in my running clothes to the Mwenye for oil. I had a shower and found the biscuits bitter and too crumbly. A tray of them tipped over into the hot oven and disintegrated. I burned a spatula and a pair of oven gloves trying to fetch them out. It had all gone terribly wrong. I was slamming doors and pans as a I tried to clean up. I didn’t know whether to chuck the biscuits or take them to work anyway. Instead I put them into the cookie jar and whereupon they broke into pieces and crumbs. When they were finally all in I grabbed the cookie jar’s lid and slammed it closed. With that, there was a crash and broken glass flew. Shards fell into the jar of destroyed bitter cookies and were also on the counter and about the tiled kitchen floor. Holding what was left of the lid over the jar, I had frozen. What am I doing, I asked myself. Maybe I had some sort of a condition, I thought, and ought to start watching reruns of Oprah to help myself admit it. With fear and disgrace washing over my spirit of anger, I threw out the cookies and the jar and then cleaned up the mess with a new and measured deliberation.