A tale of Home Affairs

There’s nothing worse than a Home Affairs whinger. You mention you’re going to Home Affairs tomorrow and they roll their eyes and say, “Good luck! Take a sleeping bag!” They’re as bad as that woman who stands behind you in the queue saying “Typical! Welcome to South Africa!” even though it’s pretty obvious that we’ve all already been in South Africa some considerable time. Why is she welcoming us? Does she think this is passport control? Anyway, we’re ahead of her in the line, so we’ve been here longer than she has. That woman is unnecessary and makes no sense.

My past dealings with Home Affairs have all been pleasant. I’ve breezed in, applied for a new passport, trafficked in a little chitchat and good cheer and skipped out again, twirling like Julie Andrews on a hillside. The people working there have always been surprisingly friendly under what must be pretty trying circumstances, and I always enjoy mentioning this to Home Affairs whingers: nothing so confuses and infuriates the congenitally negative as when those around them are not.

Still, one shouldn’t be complacent. This week I had to apply for something called an unabridged marriage certificate. What is an unabridged marriage certificate? Are most marriage certificates edited like Reader’s Digest books to eliminate swearwords and descriptive passages? Does an unabridged marriage certificate have sex scenes?

Still, I was whistling like David Niven as I sauntered jauntily through to counter 45. I was confident of a clear run. How many people could possibly be seeking an unabridged marriage certificate at 11am on a Tuesday? My reasoning was impeccable but incomplete. Counter 45, I discovered, is also the window for people wanting unabridged death certificates and – more catastrophically – unabridged birth certificates, and there in that tangled skein of humanity, in that twisting, ouroboric Gordian knot of dutiful citizens that billowed out from counter 45 and whipped and looped and doubled back on itself, there within that twisted single helix of grumpy DNA, there was all of human hope and endeavour and grief, all shifting their weight from foot to foot and stretching their backs and wishing they’d brought a sandwich.

By the second hour I made friends with the people around me. We were like the improbable cast of a 90s South African sitcom. There was the blonde woman from the country districts who found everything funny, the young black woman with funky eyewear, the wisecracking Nigerian woman, the acid-tongued Muslim woman and me. We tutted over the languid work technique of the lady at counter 45. “She looks like she doesn’t have any bones in her arms,” said the Nigerian woman. “She looks like she’s working underwater,” said the Muslim woman.

When she took a break we cheered her replacement, a crisp worker with good finger-speed and a snappy wrist-action with the stamp. We booed when the first lady returned. For a golden minute we held our breath in disbelief as both ladies worked simultaneously, then sighed when one of them looked up and realised that no one was currently on a break. Those breaks aren’t going to take themselves.

You see much of life in the queue at home affairs. An old man with crutches offered his seat to a woman carrying a baby. A bearded blond American in a plaid shirt came in with seven children, all of similar age. We all watched in wondering silence. “Maybe he’s Amish,” someone suggested.

In the third hour a pregnant woman in a white dress carrying a bouquet of white stargazer lilies pushed through the crowd to a back office, followed by a small entourage including a bewildered looking fellow in a pullover and a black bow-tie, who everyone decided must be the groom. Half an hour later when they emerged we were all still in precisely the same spot and we all cheered and pretended to throw confetti. “We’ll still be here for the divorce,” said the Nigerian woman.

The queues from various counters crossed and tangled, and around the fourth hour, as I finally drew nearer the front, I noticed that someone new was suddenly just ahead of me. I informed him if he thought he was in my queue, he was mistaken. He insisted he wasn’t mistaken, that he’d been ahead of me the whole time. I insisted he hadn’t. It became heated, voices were raised, pushes were exchanged. His eyes were wide and red and slightly frenzied. What was wrong with this guy? Was he on drugs?

Then I looked down at the form he clutched in his clenched right hand, and I saw the words “Application for Death Certificate”, and the fight went out of me because I remembered that all of life was there, and no matter how bad it’s feeling, there’s someone going through worse.

Times, 30 July 2017